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Rwandans fight poverty while others fight over the numbers | 

Tom Paulson

Donald Ndahiro, team leader of Millennium Villages Project in Rwanda

Editor’s Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series, Metrics Mania, exploring the debates surrounding how to tell if aid and development projects are working. This is a look at one such project at the center of the debate.

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MAYANGE, RWANDA — Many miles south of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ in Kigali is the site of one of the worst massacres of the 1994 Rwandan genocide where the majority Hutu ethnic group sought to eliminate their rivals, the Tutsis.

As one local, Donald Ndahiro, told me during my visit here to the Bugasera District: “This was the place they used to send people to starve and die.”

Ndahiro said this was a terrible place before the genocide — a tsetse-fly infested, hostile land of the extremely poor. And it remained a terrible place after. Only a few years ago, people were still starving — and dying — here in one of Rwanda’s poorest regions. Disease, alcoholism and despair were rampant.

It’s not at all like that today. So what happened?

Tom Paulson

Coffee farming, Bugesera District

One explanation is that a number of aid projects — including the celebrated Millennium Villages and a lesser-known but large-scale health improvement project by the Seattle-based Glaser Progress Foundation — were launched here aimed at correcting decades of neglect and to see if targeted investments could rapidly improve quality of life. Also nearby is another Seattle project, a girl’s school called Gashora Academy.

A competing theory is that the progress here is largely due to Rwanda’s overall economic improvement in the past decade.

These two views provoke fierce argument over whether foreign aid works, or at least how to measure its effectiveness. Metrics mania. Continue reading