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Rwandans fight poverty while others fight over the numbers

A coffee farmer in a Millennium Village in Rwanda, Bugesera District
Donald Ndahiro, team leader of Millennium Villages Project in Rwanda
Tom Paulson

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.


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?

Coffee farming, Bugesera District
Tom Paulson

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.

Ndahiro, team leader for the community on the Millennium Villages Project here, shakes his head and smiles when he hears about all the experts’ and academics in the West arguing over aid impact and metrics, over how to measure what here is working and what isn’t.

“It is difficult for me to follow all these arguments,” said Ndahiro, chuckling. He didn’t mean they were too complex. To him, they are too simple, as in simple-minded.

“Everybody is always talking about measurement, but how do we measure peoples lives?” Ndahiro said. “Often, the most important things to us here in a community like this, in Rwanda, are not so easily measured by someone sitting at their computer in New York or Washington, D.C.”

He happened to say this while sitting at his computer, working on some spreadsheets to document (okay, measure) the investments in and returns made here on health, education, income and other fundamental needs in this farming community in south Rwanda.

It wasn’t that long ago that Ndahiro wouldn’t have had any electricity here to run his computer, or easy access to water or even a paved road to get here. It wasn’t that long ago that peopled starved here, or died here from any number of preventable diseases.

This is Mayange, in the Bugesera District of southernmost Rwanda, once a largely barren wasteland swarming with tsetse flies, rampant malaria, poverty and, during Rwanda’s 1994 civil war, the place where about 45,000 people were massacred, 10,000 of them on the grounds of a Catholic Church in neighboring Nyamata.

Rwanda, eastern-central Africa

Mayange is also home to one of the Millennium Villages, a massive anti-poverty project spread across sub-Saharan Africa launched by economist Jeffrey Sachs and which tends to stir up more criticism than any other single endeavor in the aid and development community. It did so again recently, after a paper in The Lancet reported significant reductions in child mortality here.

Why are the experts and academics so critical of the claims of improvement? Is it because most of the aid money being spent here is helping to prop up a dictator, funding some absurd and useless bridge to nowhere, lining the pockets of parasitic foreign corporations or contractors — or simply going to waste? Is it because the aid and development projects aren’t working?

No, not really. People are mostly arguing over how to measure what’s working.

Last fall, I was in Rwanda with the International Reporting Project. We toured the country, interviewed President Paul Kagame, talked on the sly with Rwandans about the ethnic tensions that persist (which are actually illegal to talk about publicly) and visited a number of communities trying to ascertain just how far this once devastated nation has come.

Rwanda is widely viewed as an African success story and you can read my stories here. We saw evidence of a lot of progress, but also, still, a lot of poverty. I peeled off from the group one day to go see Mayange — once one of the poorest and most devastated community in Rwanda.

“We work on many aspects of poverty,” said Ndahiro, who showed me around town. He said his family was from this region but they fled due to persecution and he grew up in Uganda, as a refugee, only returning in 1995. He worked for World Vision (also headquartered in the greater Seattle area, by the way) before joining up with the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) here.

“People were so poor, there were no health services, electricity or even enough food,” Ndahiro recalled. Organizations like World Vision provide life-saving relief and assistance, he said, but the MVP’s goal was specifically to empower the community by investing in health services, education, water, electricity, agricultural improvements and other targeted interventions.

“When you have enough food, clean water and electrical power, you can teach children better and provide better health care,” Ndahiro said. “Before, nobody had electricity. For Rwanda in general, the government hopes to get electrical power to 17 percent of the population by 201. Here, 90 percent of the community has electricity”

“In 2007, there wasn’t even a road here,” he added. “Now, we have a road.”

Ah, the critics will say, but it was the Rwandan government or private corporations that built the road and brought in the electricity — not some magical result of the Millennium Villages’ average expenditure of $110 per person on these small-scale improvements.

“Yes, but why did the government build it?” Ndahiro said. The government built the road and brought in power, he said, because it wanted to participate in the community’s plan for improvement (and because the neighboring communities in Bugesera were demanding similar improvements).

“I can tell you this community has been transformed already,” Ndahiro said. People used to just starve and die here, he repeated.

I didn’t have much time to tour the entire community (and am certainly not qualified to do metrics), but on a quick drive around I visited a cassava processing collective that Ndahiro says has helped triple the average farmers’ income. Farmer education has also greatly improved crop yields here.

I visited the Mayange Health Center, which got built many years ago but nobody ever went there — because there were no medical supplies or equipment (or electricity) or much in the way of trained health staff. Now, thanks in large part to the Glaser Progress Foundation (complete story to follow on Friday) this clinic sees something like 100 people a day, vaccinating kids, working on malaria prevention (which has gone down by an order of magnitude here) and doing family planning in this most-dense nation of Africa.

We saw merchants selling products, assisted by refrigeration and lighting. We saw welders fixing machinery. Then we visited a cook stove factory — basically a big mud-and-straw kiln used by locals to create pottery cook stoves that are more efficient and don’t require as much wood. It’s a business that the locals hope will also reduce the problem of deforestation.

“How do you measure all these things?” Ndahiro said. “It seems to me it would take more work to measure all this than to simply do it.”

I pointed out to him that, when I first met him, he was measuring impact — working on spreadsheets to report back on expenditures and indicators of improvement in certain areas. Metrics. So why shouldn’t others want to do the same thing for the project as a whole, in order to establish cause and effect and make sure we’re getting the best bang for the buck?

“They should, but not if the desire for measuring things prevents actions that we know can help people,” Ndahiro said. “We know bed nets can prevent malaria, that people need clean water and electricity. Do we really need to measure everything? Ask these people what life was like here only a few years ago. There’s your metrics.”




About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.