THE BLOG

A Letter From Burundi to the World

05/06/2015 05:35 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

People who know me well know that I travel a lot, but of all the places I've traveled, no place has gotten hold of my heart like Burundi. An experience in Burundi inspired the title of my book Everything Must Change, and lessons I've learned there have changed me forever.

The following is a report from two of my dear friends from Burundi. The husband, a social entrepreneur, and the wife, a writer-theologian, asked me if I would help get this message out to the world.

If you've never found this beautiful land on a map -- about the size of the state of Maryland, and the twin sister of Rwanda, now is a good time to locate it. And now is a good time to learn from a nation on the verge of either breakdown or breakthrough. What's true in Burundi is true in Baltimore and elsewhere.

It's a lesson we all need to learn, and I don't remember it being expressed more succinctly and poignantly than my friends express it here. Because people critical of the current regime are disappearing, being imprisoned, and worse, my friends agreed with my suggestion to withhold their names.

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Three months after he took office on August 26, 2005, Burundi's president laid out a five-year, $2-billion plan to develop and lift the nation's economy out of the ruin of a 13-year civil war. At that time Pierre Nkurunziza said his program would focus on the basics of nation-building: boosting the agricultural sector, increasing electricity connections, weeding out corruption and pursuing debt write-offs to clear the way for widespread growth.

He promised to build a fertilizer factory and make it easier for poor farmers (90 percent of the population) to buy fertilizer; he pledged to survey mining and mineral prospects that are so far mostly unexplored to see if the mineral wealth of neighboring Congo existed in the green hills of Burundi.

When Nkurunziza took office, less than 3 percent of the population had access to electricity and today, despite his commitment to the contrary, less than 3 percent of the population has access to the national grid (though the average in Sub-Sahara Africa is at 26 percent). But what is worse now is that even the 3 percent are facing power cuts on a daily basis during dry season.

Besides the low generating capacity of antiquated electrical plants and grid, the central problem for the energy sector of Burundi is the scarcity of technical and management capacity. Without skilled leaders there is little hope for better or more widely available electricity and slim chance of other sources of energy to crest the horizon any time soon.

Not one single factory was built in the last 10 years - but the president built 3 factories in his hometown and those products are only seen in the hands of his political allies because of their poor quality. The president, a feverish footballer, also has funded the construction of 12 soccer stadiums throughout the country. None of these building projects have added value to anyone but the president and his clan; the economy everyone else depends upon continues to wane.

The president was able to raise the $2 billion in his first term, but the country may have seen less than 10 percent of those funds. You can see most of that money in his home village and in the holdings of a handful of generals who help him stay in power and keep the country quiet.

Foreign donors paid for most of the $2-billion plan, eager to help and support the new Burundi. Nkurunziza said the government would introduce computer systems to track donated finances, enable greater accountability and eliminate corruption. "The priority of the government is to fight against corruption and all forms of economic embezzlement," he said. "Anti-corruption police will be set up soon, and people guilty of economic crimes will be seriously punished," he said. But that was then.

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In 2015 the people of Burundi feel the deeper edge of extreme poverty and predatory economics. According to the World Bank over 80 percent of the population live under the international poverty line of $1.25US a day. It has become commonplace for government workers to go unpaid for up to 8 months at a time. Petrol hasn't been available in the country for over two months now. Current political conditions have shut down markets, making it hard to access food or sell what small crop you might have on hand. This is a snapshot of what it looks like to live on the bleeding edge of poverty.

So the recent outbreak of protests on the streets, the more than 50,000 people who've crossed borders or taken flights out of Burundi, and the increased violence are not just about a power grab or political maneuverings of a president. The deeper issue is the economy that underpins everything else. It's the economy, stupid.

And this should come as no surprise to anyone, especially people who know the Bible.
When Moses and Miriam led people across the Red Sea, it was liberation from the predatory economy of Pharaoh, an economy that only served him and his interests. Standing at the foot of Sinai, the Hebrews learned that God would construct a new economic practice as the foundation for the new governance of the Promised Land.

The 10 commandments lay out an economic ethic, outlining in staccato fashion the behaviors that will undercut the stability and growth of any community. Stealing, murder and adultery all rob families of lives and the capacity to earn a livelihood. Bearing false witness against a neighbor ruins his good name, a precious commodity in any economy. The habit of coveting and seizing what belongs to another also tears at the fabric of a community as the rich get richer and prey upon the poor, accumulating all the land and other valuables. So God declares these behaviors off limits as the first step in stemming the tide of predatory economics.

As the mixed multitude of Hebrew refugees became a nation, there would be more talk of economics. Workers ought to be paid a fair wage -- and paid on time according to Deuteronomy. The law forbade interest on loans and foreclosures on land. Landholders, those with crops, were told to harvest some but not all of the grain, grapes and olives. The left-overs became available for the economically vulnerable (the widow, orphan and immigrant) so even they could share in the money crops of the land.

The most stunning economic policy ever written was what we call Jubilee, that break from everyday economics that came every 50 years and allowed people to reclaim their family land, get back their freedom from debt-slavery and watch their debt load disappear in a cloud of forgiveness. People learned that God did not intend for there to be a permanent poverty class, but created a policy to bring economic relief to those pulled down by the undertow of hard times, greedy elites and yes, predatory economic practices. And what we also see in Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Isaiah is that when people are set free from indebtedness, we ought to help them re-enter the economy with some seed money, some capital, some tools to rebuild their economic life.
In the grand poetry of Isaiah there are verses dedicated to economics of the city. Early on we hear the unjust management of money and callous treatment of the poor led to captivity for the nation.

Later we dream with the prophet of a new city with a new economic life where people can build homes and live in them because foreclosures are no more, people can plant and harvest their own land because they are no longer slaves to anyone, people can live into old age because they'll have access to health care and food security and maybe even clean water. It is a dream of a viable and vibrant community founded on healthy economic practice -- and it is in our Book for us to ponder.

It is in our Book that we should consider such radical economic practices for the good of our families, communities and nations. How do we embody the kind of economic ethics that lead us toward a better way of life? What might that look like in Burundi, a country teetering on the edge of economic (and now political) calamity?

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Today the cries come from the streets and villages of Burundi. The unraveling of the economy and the political structure should not be a surprise to those who know the stories of Scripture, who know that a predatory economy always ends in violence. Even if the president is a born again Christian and hosts prayer meetings in his home as Nkurunziza does, he must pay wages on time, calibrate the economy to benefit the vulnerable, use funds to build electric power plants and not stadiums, erect health clinics in each province and not buy an unnecessary (and unseen) presidential jet. The unrest in Burundi today is not just about a third term.

The concern is that the international community might rush in to solve a political problem - a president hungry for an unconstitutional third term. The advocates for peace might come to stem the growing possibility of ethnic violence that circles back to genocide, as seen in Burundi and Rwanda not too many years ago. Then, once the president is dealt with, once the crisis is averted, everyone will leave thinking they've solved the matter and brokered a peace. But there will be no lasting peace until the root issue is addressed, and that's the economy, stupid.

It has been the same since Sinai. It is today in Burundi.

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