First, I would like to thank President Bollinger for the honour of a repeat invitation to the Columbia University World Leaders Forum.
The last time I was here, exactly four years ago, the topic was development. How to speed it up. How to sustain it.
As I said here in 2015, for us in Rwanda, the recipe has three main ingredients. One, smart policy. Two, finding the money to put those policies into effect. And three, good politics.
That notion of good politics has a very specific meaning for Rwandans because of our history. It means unity. Bringing people together. Making decisions through consensus.
That three-point formula continues to work for us. Growth is strong. Poverty and inequality continue to fall. The service industry around conferences, tourism, and major sporting events has taken off thanks to strategic infrastructure investments. I hereby invite all of you to visit our country, Rwanda.
Big changes are underway on our continent as well — the whole continent of Africa. The African Union has undergone financial and institutional reform to make it more effective.
One outcome is the entry into force of the African Continental Free Trade Area, the world’s largest. The African Union conducts numerous peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions around the continent. Member States have contributed more than $100 million in the last few years to the Peace Fund to support these activities with our own funds.
The global trend against regional integration clearly has not taken hold in Africa.
But today, I would like to say a bit more about the intangibles of the development process. Numbers tell us a lot. But behind the data, you find real people.
The progress we have seen over time in Rwanda is the result of a deliberate effort to nurture our unity. It is not just because we have capable women and men formulating and carrying out policy. Of course we do, and that is very important.
However, it is really about citizens themselves being part of the whole process. Each one of them, in some way, is in the driver’s seat, making sure that things happen which benefit them, their families, and the wider community.
You see, well-being has both objective and subjective dimensions. You cannot dictate how people should feel. People who feel hopeful about their lives are not going to change their minds because you tell them the data show they should actually be unhappy.
Africans are constantly subject to this kind of gas-lighting. It is as if the reality we know and live and see requires external validation. You begin to doubt your own perception, which is, of course, the whole point.
Let me give three illustrations.
Most African leaders, including myself, have had the experience of being interrogated by strangers about everything that is supposedly wrong with our countries. In many cases, the criticism is not based on facts or any direct experience. It is simply prejudice condensed into dogma.
Recently, I ended up telling one of them, “Who are you?” By which I meant, what kind of people do you think we are? African leaders answer to their people. There should be no room for intermediaries.
Another example is the current panic about China’s influence in Africa. We hear that China is bad for Africa. That doing business with China will lead to debt and dictatorship.
It is strange when these warnings come from places, which are aggressively pursuing trade and investment ties with China, and which actually hold most of Africa’s external debt.
So, why would engaging with China be beneficial in some cases, and harmful in others?
Something deeper is at play in this discourse: The idea that Africa is a ‘prize’ to win or lose. The notion that we Africans don’t know what is good for us.
That thinking has no place in today’s world. It doesn’t. We have more pressing problems and business. Africa has its own interests to pursue, and we intend to get on with it.
The third example is an annual survey known as the World Happiness Report. The goal is laudable. Gross Domestic Product is not the only measure of development. And yet Rwanda always ranks near the bottom, alongside countries mired in conflict.
How could the citizens of the most improved country in the history of the United Nations Human Development report also be amongst the world’s most miserable? There is a contradiction here.
We looked into it. It turns out that the World Happiness Report is based on a single question from the Gallup World Poll. The way that question is phrased leads Rwandans to answer very pessimistically, for cultural reasons.
In the same survey, Rwandans report high rates of positive and happy experiences every day. Ironically, the question on happiness is not used in the World Happiness Report. The organisers agree the ranking makes no sense. And yet, year after year, the same absurd conclusion is published.
It takes real determination to stay committed to the reality in front of our eyes.
I think it is time to have better conversations. Partnership has been a very significant part of Rwanda’s story. We have benefited greatly by being open to the ideas and experiences of others and applying them to our situation.
An announcement made yesterday provides a concrete example. Rwanda has been working with ICAP at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, together with PEPFAR and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to measure HIV epidemic control.
The results of the survey show that 76% of all HIV-positive adults, including nearly 80% of women, have achieved viral load suppression. That means Rwanda’s health system is successfully limiting new infections and providing treatment to those living with HIV.
A joint initiative with Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society has rebuilt 15 years of lost climate data. The program has also helped our national weather agency build an advanced online climate information system for Rwandan farmers.
These results could only have been achieved with sustained partnership over many years.
Let me conclude with an invitation for any interested SIPA students to choose Rwanda for their Capstone Workshop. And a couple of young people from Rwanda, some of whom I know — some of whom still live in my house — have also had this experience.
In fact, President Bollinger forged the path with his visit to Rwanda earlier this year. We would be happy to welcome you. Our Ambassador to the United Nations, Valentine Rugwabiza, is here. Please, those who wish to come should get in touch with her and we will be happy to always welcome you.
Thank you for your attention this evening. I look forward to our discussion.