Rwandan President Paul Kagame likes governments and does not like non-government organizations. In remarks delivered at the Meles Zenawi Foundation Symposium on Development, an event named after the former Ethiopian prime minister, Kagame praised Zenawi and used the opportunity to set out his vision for the role of the state in development across Africa.
“Every developed economy, without exception, is the fruit of a free market, and a strong developmental state, working in tandem. The orthodoxy of shrinking the state to the bare minimum, and replacing it with externally-funded non-state actors (here you can say NGOs), left Africa with no viable path out of poverty,” said Kagame, according to the Ghana Business News, in late August.
It comes at a time when Kagame seeks to change the Rwandan constitution so he can stand for a third term in office. He played coy for years about running again, saying he would follow the will of Rwandans, but now efforts are under way to make the necessary amendments so he can retain power. Critics say he is an autocrat who stamps out opposition and is unfriendly to outside pressure.
And despite strong rhetoric opposing foreign assistance and the work of non-state actors, Rwanda relies heavily on both. About 40 percent of the country’s federal budget comes from foreign aid. That is in addition to the services provided by external groups and military aid provided by foreign governments. And that allows leaders like Kagame, Zenawi and Pierre Nkurunziza in neighboring Burundi, to stay in power, says Helen Epstein, writer and Bard College professor, in the New York Review of Books.
“This money enables African leaders to ignore the demands of their own people, and facilitates the financing of the patronage systems and security machinery that keeps them in power,” she writes.
Epstein uses her review of Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly’s new book on popular protests in Africa to illustrate how foreign interests and influence impact the continent. It is a point where she and Kagame agree. But they differ on what it means for long-standing leaders like him. Both see foreign interventions as causes for problems in African countries, but Epstein views Kagame as evidence of those problems.
The differences are most evident in Kagame’s points on democracy and development. He argues that the two are closely linked, then casts aside any possibility of a universal definition to democracy.
“While there may be some examples of non-democratic developmental states, they should not be the example for Africa, with all its diversity,” said Kagame. “Yet lately, the word ‘democracy’ has been twisted to bring developing countries, our own, to some kind of order, especially which have sought to liberate themselves from these prejudices. Our democratic advances are constantly negated, and in actual fact subverted.”
The final sentences directly address any criticisms of African democracies that come from outside the country. In the case of Kagame, it could apply to the small opposition within the country, too. And he goes further to say that Ethiopia and Rwanda are examples of successful democratic states.
“Ours is the true democracy of citizens, not the false ones of institutionalized corruption and division. We cannot be bullied into accepting policies that misrepresent us and do us harm in the end, as we have seen over many years.”
Foreign influence and interference have done some harm. The economic policies pushed during the 1970s and 1980s by the likes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund contributed to slowed development. But foreign aid also played a role in achieving a halving of child deaths since 1990. It also supported a post-genocide Rwanda and non-government organizations, including the Boston-based Partners in Health, work directly with the government to make improvements like access to health care.
Foreign aid matters to Kagame. When evidence came out that Rwanda was supporting armed rebels in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, the specter of stopping and actual withholding of aid was enough pressure for the government to cease its activities in the Congo.
As Epstein points out, recent popular movements in developing countries are aimed at removing autocratic leaders. Burundians failed to unseat their president, but the episode just a few months ago shows how quickly small protests and discontent can grow to something more significant. Kagame’s remarks may come amid feelings of uncertainty when it is his term to stand in a controversial election.