No country for poor men

Rwanda is juking its development statistics as the international community turns a blind eye to the human rights abuses of Paul Kagame's authoritarian rule.

Rwanda. Image credit lksriv via Flickr CC.

Had I been running with my headphones on, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the lone machine gun-toting guard, pacing on the sidewalk outside the sparkling spiraling glass dome that is the Kigali Convention Center. But out-of-shape, winded, and without anything to listen to, I heard the guard’s firm order to cross the street. Confused, I obliged. There didn’t seem to be a conference happening. Why the tight security?

Yet, the entire road outside the Convention Centre—a convenient thoroughfare connecting large sections of the city—remained closed for the entire length of my stay in the Rwandan capital, and traffic flowed around the obstacle knowingly.

Showy yet vacant, the Kigali Convention Centre, much like Rwanda’s development record, stands guarded like a badly kept secret. And, despite the immense focus on sustainable development in this year’s United Nations General Assembly—the 74th in the body’s history and the 25th since the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis—the controversy went entirely unmentioned.

Scholars and journalists alike have shared their concerns about the growing authoritarian and repressive qualities of the Rwandan government under the Rwandan Patriotic Army’s former general and the country’s current president Paul Kagame—and which I echoed previously on this site. However, until more recently these concerns went largely ignored by an international community perfectly satisfied by the incredible economic progress being made. That is, the progress that was being reported.

Relying on the substantial investigative work originally published by The Review of African Political Economy (Roape)—and as an extension of the debate initiated in 2015 by Filip Reyntjens, lawyer and professor at the University of Antwerp—the Financial Times, as well as the Economist, recently published articles detailing the apparent manipulation of the country’s poverty statistics from within. In the last 20 years, the Rwandan government, specifically the National Institute of Statistics Rwanda, has collected data on various rates of consumption for their Integrated Household Living Conditions Surveys (EICVs). Citing the results of the fourth such survey, from data collected between October 2013 and October 2014, the Rwandan government claimed a reduction in overall poverty from 45% in 2010/11 to 39%. Anywhere in the world, a fall of such magnitude would be nothing short of miraculous. Skeptics were swift in pointing out, however, that certain survey criteria had changed.

Long-held in high esteem by NGOs and Western donors for its rapid economic growth, and frequently compared to the likes of Singapore, Rwanda may not actually be making the strides reflected in the fourth Integrated Household Living Conditions Surveys (EICV4). Economists, like Sam Desiere of the University of Lueven, noticed that the new data had been collected using an altered food basket (the term given in economics to the total amount of goods purchased and consumed on a daily basis by one individual in order to meet basic dietary needs) in which more expensive, low calorie products were replaced with cheaper, high calorie ones. It also used rates of inflation (for food goods) much lower than reasonable estimates suggested. In other words, the National Institute of Statistics Rwanda changed the poverty line, making it easier to categorize more people as having risen out of poverty.

When the poverty line is readjusted using the food basket scheme from previous EICVs, along with more accurate inflation rates (which can be done using Rwanda’s own data), rather than showing a 6% decrease in poverty the data suggests as much as a 6% increase in poverty. As Roape reported, if the new trend is sound there is only one country in the world which experienced a more precipitous increase in poverty than Rwanda: South Sudan. To say the drop from a comparison with Singapore to one with South Sudan represents a fall from grace would be an understatement.

But how much blame does Rwanda, or even President Kagame, who explicitly denied the allegations made by the Financial Times, deserve? What evidence is there that shows that Rwanda’s rose-colored data was intentionally manipulated? What sign is there of wrong-doing besides repeated denial in the face of empirical evidence? And, how might we assess the alleged complicity of the World Bank, which expanded its financial commitment to the Maryland-sized East African nation from $201 million in 2017 to $545 million in 2018 (more than 270%), well after the first reports of false statistics were published?

“This conversation [about Rwanda’s poverty statistics] has been happening for a while now and it needs to be placed in a broader context,” said Dr. Pritish Behuria, Hallsworth Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. It is “tough to say the World Bank is complicit,” he continued, “many countries are guilty of manipulating their own poverty statistics,” a point with which Reyntjens agrees.

The debate on poverty statistics aside, Rwanda’s economy has not been without significant positive change since the genocidal war of 1994. As Behuria points out, Rwanda’s dependence on unprocessed coffee before 1994 (the fluctuation of market prices were historically accompanied by dramatic changes in power) has been slightly padded out by increased processing, as well as Rwanda’s transition to mineral dependence. Though, being a small, land-locked country, it has also been able to implement a plan to increase domestic manufacturing of locally consumed goods, such as clothing.

Surely stability counts for something. After all, as Rwanda’s Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, Uzziel Ndagijimana, offered in his rebuttal of the Financial Times report: The only reason this entire debate around poverty statistics is taking place is because Rwanda has had the capability of collecting data and has disseminated it transparently.

Despite the Rwandan government’s position, Behuria still has some reservations: “Perhaps [there is] pressure within the system to manipulate data… whether it is being strategically manipulated? I think that’s a bit far. Maybe they do turn a blind eye to some of the more… heavy handed policies.”

Other scholars, like Reyntjens, who has spent the past 20 years writing critically of the Rwandan government’s human rights abuses (earning a ban from entering the country), are less convinced of various actors’ innocence. In his 2015 article on African Arguments, Reyntjens noted that the Oxford Policy Management team, which had collaborated with the National Institute of Statistics Rwanda for their 2011 survey (for which they were strongly acknowledged in the survey’s publication), abandoned their work with the agency over a difference of view. Reyntjens argues: “The question then becomes whether the Rwandan government deliberately fools the world and its own population. There are strong indications this is indeed the case.”

While this is far from the proof necessary to make a judgment of the Rwandan government’s guilt, in the larger context of the regime’s increasingly authoritarian, repressive, and violent tendencies, this assessment does not stretch the imagination. Significantly, it was the Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey 4—with its food basket criteria that reduced certain more expensive, but nonetheless common, food staples by as much as or more than 70%—that immediately preceded the passing of the 2015 constitutional referendum. This referendum allowed President Kagame to not only stand for a previously legally impossible third term, but to also potentially extend his rule to 2034.

Reyntjens explains:

The international community has been very understanding, so to speak, of the Rwanda regime. They have tolerated major human rights abuses, authoritarianism, the destruction of a political level playing field… in exchange for an economic and social success involving poverty reduction… if those [poverty statistics] are not reliable, then surely there’s a problem with the trade off.

Though the 74th UN General Assembly and its accompanying Sustainable Development Summit have come and gone, it is worth questioning the role that large international financial and governmental institutions play in creating the conditions that at best allow, and at worst facilitate, the development of authoritarian repressive regimes—especially those that disguise the continued impoverishment of their own populations. Though, as Reyntjens says, “It’s not just the UN, it’s also the donors. They simply don’t want to rock the boat… Donors and recipients need each other. The recipients need the money, and the donors need success stories.” For this reason—or the sake of preserving the facade that is Rwanda’s developmental success—it is unlikely that Rwanda’s statistics manipulation will ever be discussed at any of the numerous high-level meetings on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

(Though I attempted to contact Rwanda’s UN delegation, as well as a number of other individuals working for the UN, it came as no surprise—after sifting my way through just a few articles and documents and enduring the wordy, technocratic slurry that is the UN’s website—that no one I was passed off to would respond to my simple questions: Does the UN use Rwanda’s statistics in their own assessments? Will they discuss data collection and statistics manipulation, perhaps as a “critical entry point” into the discussion of “megatrends impacting the implementation of the SDGs?” Though one article states that the “UN development system is undergoing its ‘deepest reform in decades’ to be able to respond to the paradigm shift at the heart of the 2030 Agenda,” it is clear that this reform, like all reforms, is a mild and vague defensive maneuver designed to protect the solidly entrenched Washington Consensus—the boat they really don’t want to rock.)

Is all this hard focus on Rwanda by academics, economists, and journalists justified? After all, as Behuria acknowledged, many countries are guilty of the same form of statistics manipulation that has taken place in Rwanda—Reyntjens even points out President Trump’s own record of misrepresenting economic gains. So, is this much criticism heaped on a small African nation some form of afro-pessimistic bullying disguised as good intentions?

Perhaps. Though, as a member of this same group of critics, I can at least attest to the fact that I never personally chose Rwanda as the recipient of my criticism; a long history beginning with my Peace Corps service and the very personal relationships I made there led me to simply notice that things weren’t right. And that seems to be the case for many people involved in this work who level criticism and hope it makes an impact that will ripple outward. Illustrating this point, Reyntjens brought up a helpful, European example:

If the EU accepted Greece into the Eurozone knowing—probably knowing—that they doctored their figures, Greece was not at the same time massively arresting people, putting them in jail, torturing them and extrajudicially executing them; We tolerate certain things from Kigali that we should not tolerate, and we do it because they’re successful. And yet, the evidence base of their success is extremely flimsy.

So again, as the UN Sustainable Development Goals plod along forever in a circle like a donkey working a horse mill, it is worth asking: To what extent are the World Bank, Western donors, and the United Nations by virtue of its own silence, complicit not only in the continued impoverishment of the populations of developing countries, but in the human rights abuses, structural violence, and extrajudicial killings committed by the governments of those countries? If the developmental model so widely agreed upon, the Washington Consensus, not only forgives but grows and strengthens authoritarian regimes that cause violence and beget further violence down the road, then of what use is the model? Like a less demonic Anton Chigurh, we must ask: If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?

And, of course, the question always lingering in the background of such large, leftist, structural questions: who’s going to do something about it? If massive institutions, like the United Nations, are primarily populated by the well-meaning sycophantic zombies of capital, then how can they be trusted to arrive at the precipice of the massive paradigmatic, psychological and political shift required to make any difference in the lives of most people in a real way—whether in Rwanda, the US, or anywhere?

Further Reading