04/07/2014 03:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

20 Years Later, Rwanda Is Succeeding

The U.S. missed its chance, 20 years ago last month, to stop the Rwandan genocide before a million people were killed. But there will likely never be a second such event in Rwanda, and the reason for that has everything to do with the resolve of the Rwandan government and its people. Every first-time visitor these days is shocked on arrival in Rwanda. The shock doesn't come from what you'd expect -- remnants of the horrific genocide that began in April 20 years ago and ended 100 harrowing days later. The shock comes from seeing the pristine litter-free streets, the electrification, the construction works, the orderliness of transport and activity. Rwanda is booming these days -- from gleaming new malls and businesses to fiber optic networks that would be the envy of any country (there's free wifi on public buses) -- and has come further than any ever would have expected just a generation ago.

To understand the remarkable remaking of that equatorial African nation, it helps to know that "Hutu" and "Tutsi" were not warring tribes. The colonial European powers issued identity cards to Rwandans, assigning most of them to one of those two groups, sometimes based on the number of cattle someone owned or their height. In fact, the two groups had been intermarrying for centuries, and the real reason for separating them was for colonial control. When African liberation swept the continent and the colonial powers desisted, there were scores to be settled between the arbitrarily separated groups. Massacres and abuse of the Tutsi people would follow for over 30 years and culminate in 1994's genocide.

But it wasn't just the arrival of peace that smoothed the way to reconciliation after the bloodbath: it was the notion, adopted with great enthusiasm by the nation's young, new leaders, that poverty is the breeding ground of resentment, desperation and anger. The thought was that Rwanda needed to get its people quickly into the middle class. Only there could the old wounds heal, and forever.

To do that, they had to create something virtually unique in Africa: government that was corruption-free, a plan to turn away foreign aid as soon as possible, and a reliance on business standards to measure and encourage competition and efficiency. To that, they added a little bit of the New Deal. Over 95 percent of Rwandans, for example, have full health insurance, and the health of the nation is better than its neighbors still improving. One million people (eight percent of the population) lifted themselves out of poverty through the economic growth between 2006 and 2012. Some studies indicate Rwanda may be fully out of poverty in the next 20 years. Infant mortality dropped from 86 per 1000 live births in 2005, to 50 per 1000 live births in 2011, and the curve is rising.

Perhaps as important, if you ask a young person if he or she is Hutu or Tutsi, you will get a very dirty look, and the answer, in English -- now the nation's second language -- will be, "I am Rwandan."

This transformation was achieved not only through a venting of the horrors of the genocide -- everyone participated in neighborhood-level courts to tell what happened to them during that time. Many killers have reconciled with the families of their victims. Many victims have forgiven. Most killers went to prison and have now reentered society, and are welcome.

Chantal, who was Kigali's only woman taxi driver a few years ago, and is a genocide survivor, has refashioned herself a tour operator, for nearly 30,000 Americans visited Rwanda last year alone. Many come to see the gorillas in the mists of Rwanda's volcanoes, but they go home marveling at what is being called "the Switzerland of Equatorial Africa." I would rather it be called the San Jose, as investment is arriving, and the entrepreneurial energy is palpable.

In the health centers my group, Health Builders, has helped establish throughout the country, wall charts paper the consultation rooms measuring prenatal visits, inoculations of children, and well-baby visits. Technology links community health workers with the health system. The financing for our newest clinics is co-financed by the government and generous American donors. When the doors swing open, the centers are owned, managed and fully sustained by the government and supplemented by the insurance paid by nearly every Rwandan.

Ten years ago when my wife, Alissa, and I moved to Rwanda, I was busy in the countryside while she was in the capital, Kigali, working with orphans of the genocide who needed to find a way to afford higher education. There were few cafes where they could easily get jobs to pay their own tuition. She started a restaurant, Heaven, on a hill that once literally ran with blood -- it is a few blocks from the hotel that became famous as a safe refuge during the hundred days of killing.

She has provided jobs that have sent many young people into college and professional lives. Now, there are many new businesses, all providing jobs, and the incredibly energetic young people of Rwanda are devouring every educational opportunity -- no amount of foreign aid could handle the task.

Many efforts are underway to bring improved peace and stability to the region, including a new Equatorial railroad and an electrification program. But the fact is, Rwanda's success is not waiting for a perfect peace. It is the American frontier in may respects. It is a great place to start a business. It is open, friendly, corruption-free, and in its youthful moment.

American business people are at the Heaven bar, alongside the expats who work for innumerable American and European charities. Every year, the business people are taking up more of the bar, backed by visionary investors and private equity institutions. They sit alongside Rwandan entrepreneurs. They are a key reason Rwanda's security situation has improved: Healthy, prosperous people with realistic plans for a better future simply do not have the time or inclination to dwell on the past. Their smartphones are too full of other commitments.