02/13/2012 07:16 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2012

I Thought 'Aid Doesn't Work?'

What we can learn from Rwanda

I've heard some great news from Rwanda this week. Rwanda may be on track to become one of the most compelling case studies in favour of foreign aid since South Korea emerged as an economic powerhouse late last century.

This week, the Government of Rwanda released a report that outlined startling success in reducing poverty over the past five years. According to the Household Living Conditions Survey -- which is the international benchmark for assessing the prevalence of poverty -- the number of households under the poverty line has dropped by 200,000 since 2006. That's about a million people in a country of 11 million -- or, if you prefer statistics, a 12 percent drop in the population classified as 'poor' (from 57 percent to 45 percent) between 2006 and 2011. This represents one of the best outcomes in poverty in recent times. But beneath these impressive numbers, there are even more positive signs across the board in Rwanda.

In the same five years, the fertility rate has dropped from 6.1 to 4.6. That is a staggering number, largely owed to the rapid uptake of family planning among Rwandan women, growing from 10 percent in 2006 to 45 percent today (the target is 70 percent by 2013). Meanwhile, maternal and infant mortality rates have markedly declined as the government's health insurance scheme has grown to cover more than 90 percent of the population. On top of that, participation at all levels of education is on the up and up, with secondary enrollments doubling over the term of the survey.

Where the political will exists, these results are achievable for all developing nations. John Rwangombwa, Rwanda's Finance Minister, agrees. Writing in the Wall Street Journal this morning, Mr. Rwangombwa rejects the idea that Rwanda is experiencing a social and economic "miracle," as some gushing commentators like to claim:

"... there is nothing supernatural about what [Rwanda has] achieved to date.. [it is] the result of unrelenting focus by our country's leaders and citizens on getting the fundamentals right: government accountability and transparency, policies that attract trade and investment, a healthy and educated population."

Rwangombwa is also eager to share the credit with development partners, including the UK, EU, World Bank and African Development Bank:

" is only fair to note that the success so far of our economic development and poverty reduction strategy is owed to good policy both in Kigali and among our partners. We have been heartened, to say the least, by the courage displayed by our partners in their unwavering commitment to our country and continent during a period of great fiscal constraint."

Rwanda is undeniably leading the way in Africa towards the Millennium Development Goals, but it still has a long way to go in some areas. Over the next five years, infrastructure investment, electrification and access to water will all need serious attention -- and some rural areas are lagging way behind. As the Minister points out, Rwanda's advances over the past five years "represents a mere fraction of the ambitions we hold for our country." Indeed, as long as 45 percent of the country's population remains in poverty, there is still much work to be done.