Consensus, cows, and Kagame's vision

 

Ideas from my previous post - always considering context and history, remaining exploratory and avoiding assumptions - were wholeheartedly reaffirmed in a recent conversation with Kaia Miller-Goldstein (Brown '87!)

Kaia works as an economic and strategic advisor to governments primarily in developing nations, and serves on Paul Kagame's Presidential Advisory Council (a group that also includes Tony Blair and Rick Warren, the controversial minister who inaugurated Obama).

Kaia first came to Rwanda in 1999, right before Kagame officially became president. Since then, she's traveled to Rwanda nearly forty times. Kaia and I had an informative and heated conversation about Rwandan politics, Kagame's vision, and western criticisms. I wasn't able to film our conversation this time, though I intend to meet with her again to get her on camera. For now, I'll share some highlights from our chat here.

When Kaia and her team arrived in Kigali in 1999, they expected to encounter familiar "developing country" challenges: lack of organization, corruption, bureaucratic hurdles. Instead, they found Paul Kagame, and were struck by his firm leadership, clarity of vision, and commitment to rebuild a self-sufficient Rwanda. Kagame sought international advice only to then build a Rwanda that could flourish on its own. Thus Kaia's work was contingent upon a built-in exit strategy.

Having worked so closely with Kagame from the early stages of his presidency, Kaia certainly offers a particular perspective on Rwandan issues, one that should be understood within her unique context. When I asked her about western critics who often focus on Rwanda's lack of freedom of expression, she pointed to the vast strides Rwanda has made in countless other areas.

When someone who was once poor and felt unsafe in their home now has health insurance, agricultural income, and a sense of security, freedom of expression may not even be an issue of note. She also talked about how critics of Kagame simply fuel the opposition, and circulate ideas within their own small network. If she sees an article by a particular journalist, she knows what kind of bent it is going to have.

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Rwanda is often criticized for its lack of / repression of opposition parties; Kagame's sweeping win in last year's election has been cited as an example of both corruption and Rwanda's resistance to diverse political opinions. The west is wary of such widespread support of one person; somehow this is too good to be true and must reflect something dangerous. To this, Kaia spoke about a culturally-rooted inclination toward consensus in Rwandan society. The population doesn't want a president to have 50% of the vote -- half the population being disappointed with an election outcome doesn't make sense. They'd rather agree on one person who can garner 90%.

Kaia also described how villages around the country adore Kagame, largely because he has implemented policies that directly benefit the rural poor and reflect deeply-held Rwandan traditions. One example of this is the 'one cow per poor family' program. Yes, this program literally gives cows to poor families, providing them with food and a source of income. But it also provides much more.

The cow is a sacred, and fraught, symbol in Rwanda -- during Belgian rule, Hutu/Tutsi identity cards were distributed based on the number of cows one owned. Thus owning a cow now is a point of pride for a family, and signifies the government's care and investment in its people. The cows also provide an opportunity for multiple families to join together and collectively care for their cows in a more efficient way -- helping to rebuild ties and trust between neighbors (Rwanda ranks very high on trust in institutions, but very low on trust among fellow citizens).

Various international aid organizations were deeply critical of this policy, arguing that it is an inefficient giveaway. But perhaps Kagame has tapped into something more nuanced than international aid: he is attempting to merge sociology, tradition, and development, and mobilize the population, to rebuild from the ground up.

Kaia did underscore Kagame's particular strategy for reconciliation. Rather than keeping the boiler uncapped -- allowing opinions to run free, letting people yell at each other, inviting the dust to rise -- Rwanda is keeping the boiler closed and making forward-thinking changes (like focusing on economic development). Anything that could be destabilizing or incendiary is discouraged.

The hope is that then, when the boiler is finally opened, Rwanda will have rebuilt a stronger version of itself, one that is resistant to fractures. These strategies are untested; we can't say one is better than the other. But this is what Rwanda has chosen to do, and the world will witness and learn from what unfolds there.