When I sat down to talk to President Kagame about why Rwanda has been so successful in reforming his country and achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), his answer was chiefly political will: "Political will is the one thing that holds the rest together." And while this answer may seem oversimplified, Kagame insists that's because it is.
Today is Rwanda Day and President Kagame is attending the Rwanda Youth Forum in Dallas, Texas where he will meet with hundreds of Rwanda's diaspora to report on their country's progress, as well as discuss the challenges ahead.
Rwanda is in an almost unimaginable state compared to where it was 20 years ago. In the wake of a genocide, where the country lost one million people and displaced 800,000 within a three month period, Rwanda has become one of the frontrunners in achieving the MDGs. The genocide radically changed the country's demographic structure; women today account for 54 percent of the country's population, altering the entire social and economic fabric of its society. During our conversation, Kagame presented the challenge at hand; "How do we bring the country back together? How do we bring normal life to the country?"
With rapid economic development, a reduction in poverty and mortality rates, access to health care, equal opportunity for education and policies that empower women, Rwanda has seemingly found the answer to these questions. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Rwanda is expected to achieve the majority of MDGs. Compared to many of its neighboring nations, Rwanda has been an example of radical change pushed through by the determination of its leader.
Kagame previously commanded the rebel forces that ended the 1994 Genocide and became President in 2000. Under his leadership, Rwanda has transformed from a broken nation into one of the safest, most productive and stable economies in Africa. Described as the Singapore of Africa, Rwanda is the 10th fastest growing economy in the world, and in the past decade has lifted more than a million people out of poverty.
Kagame's tight grip on power has helped create much of Rwanda's stability. But he has also faced criticism for his government's ruthless determination to maintain order. It has stirred the debate about good governance and what it takes to be an effective leader, to maintain order and create change. But his popularity and the success of his government's reforms mean that Kagame is likely to serve a third term in 2017. Continuing on as President will require a constitutional amendment.
While Kagame has critics, even they must acknowledge the progress he has made, simply put the results are there. In his 2013 New York Times article Jeffrey Gettleman said: "No country in Africa, if not the world has so thoroughly turned itself around in so short a time." The Rwanda model has proven that foreign aid, coupled with political will, can turn the fate of even the poorest of nations.
While Rwanda is at the forefront of achieving the MDGs, there is of course more to be done. According to a UN MDG report, released this March, the country is still challenged by high levels of poverty and inequality, low skills and productivity and suitable infrastructure. However, according to the same report, these hurdles are not insurmountable and given trends to date, in regard to the MDG targets, the country is likely to achieve all of its development aspirations. "The MDGs are not a ceiling but a floor," said Kagame, giving the impression that the MDGs will be achieved.
It was clear during our conversation that Kagame is hopeful for the future of Rwanda, hopeful for what is to come. It is under Kagame's leadership that Rwanda recovered from its tragic history and is well on it's way to becoming a middle-income nation. Rwanda now serves as a model for neighboring nations, proving that even the poorest and most broken countries can be reformed. As Kagame put it, "If Rwanda can do it, anyone can do it."