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An Aid-free Country

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I wrote last week about a bi-partisan delegation from "ONE Vote '08" that planned to visit Rwanda. Led by the organization's Co-Chairs, former U.S. Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Bill Frist, the delegation also included Mike Huckabee, Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, and Cindy McCain.

We hosted the delegation on Saturday and had the opportunity to offer our visitors a glimpse of life here, visual and tactile proof of what US private and public investments have accomplished. Rwandans have produced great achievements with the financial assistance of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria and PEPFAR. Now there are more than 50,000 Rwandans on AIDS drugs. Health care infrastructure, and therefore, opportunities for inexpensive and available treatment have expanded. In the wake of improvements in health, the private sector has begun a slow but momentous take-off. In Bugesera district, the epicenter of the genocide, a cooperative of 350 is leading cultural tours for tourists hungry for more than just viewing gorillas. Up north, in Musanze district, the home of the gorillas, new hotels and guest houses are going up quickly including a community-run site which is luxurious and garners $1000 per night.

In response to my last post, some of you were focused on aid (is it worth it? Is it valued?). Throughout their visit, the delegation heard that while there is deep respect and gratitude for US development assistance -- which has provided AIDS drugs, malaria nets, and condoms -- they would now like to see assistance transition to business investment.

As health, sanitation and education improve in Rwanda, its citizens are increasingly interested in programs and businesses that build prosperity. Foreign investment remains low, and lower still is the number of business people who have shown a willingness to set up in Rwanda and build Rwandan capacity. In every sector of the economy -- tourism, agribusiness, financial services, and technology -- there is an overwhelming desire to attract investment and talent to build competitive industries here. Ambitiously, Rwandans wish to make their country a middle-income nation by 2020.

In all of my interactions with the members of the group -- from both sides of the aisle -- it was clear that everyone was proud of the achievements of US support in Rwanda. Further, they made it clear that there was more than enough common ground around issues of poverty reduction and prosperity creation to further US efforts. While the group came to Rwanda neither as Republicans nor Democrats but rather, as Americans, they were all surprised to learn that Bush doctrine through PEPFAR -- just re-appropriated and celebrated on this trip -- has made Republicans of Rwandans.

One of the highlights for us and for the group was to discuss Rwanda's future with Cindy McCain. She happened to be here in April 1994. She has seen Rwanda at the lowest point in its history. With her visit, she's now seen Rwanda's transformation... and rebirth. The call that she heard from Rwandan politicians and the private sector here was loud and clear: "Give us trade, not aid." The goal emerging from the trip is to get the US to support Rwanda in becoming the first aid-free country in sub-Saharan Africa. It's a unique goal that can be reached, and we must do all we can to support it, regardless of who enters the White House.