Aid to Rwanda used to be uncontroversial, but in the past few years more have been questioning its merits. The United Kingdom’s campaign to help the genocide-torn statelet has turned into a distillation of the challenges and benefits of foreign-aid programs. President Paul Kagame has conducted a foreign policy so out of line with international norms that it sometimes seems to be inspired by Khomeini-era Iran. It targets dissidents abroad, harrasses foreign journalists, and sponsors resource-plundering guerilla movements in its neighbors. Yet while Iran became an international pariah, Rwanda has enjoyed relatively good relations with the West—and a healthy income from Western development agencies. There is cause for this beyond Western guilt over the events of 1994. With outside help, the Kagame government has substantially reduced poverty, and Rwanda has been one of the beneficiaries of a wave of sub-Saharan economic growth. Rwandans live seven years longer now than they did at the start of Kagame’s presidency.
Still, the British experience shows just how casually the Rwandan government can treat its donors. Britain’s foreign aid office, the Department for International Development (DFID), is legally barred from considering British national interests, so it continued to plunge tens of millions into Rwanda even as one of its own officials was attacked in Kigali and a plot to assassinate a British citizen in London came to light. A sharp column by the Economist’s Bagehot, a British citizen whose hotel room was once ransacked by Rwandan agents seeking to suppress evidence of war crimes, explores the mismanagement in the DFID and the dilemmas over its Rwanda aid.
Bagehot wisely notes that foreign aid can serve British interests—the faded empire can retain some of its international weight by leading development efforts. Rwandan lives have improved thanks to British aid. But states are not charitable trusts—they exist to serve their own citizens and residents. The designers of the DFID may have thought they were acting as a role model when they refused to link aid to interest, but if Britons and Rwandan exiles in London live in fear for their lives of a state they are taxed to fund, the tail is clearly wagging the dog—politically and morally. It is tragic that cutting British aid due to the actions of the Rwandan government will harm the Rwandan people, but Rwanda, like Britain, is responsible for its own—if it steers a course to international isolation, the guilty party for Rwandan suffering is in Kigali, not London.