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Rwandans Try To Free Themselves From The "Poison" Of Foreign Aid

Article illustrative image Partner logo Reaching higher

KIGALI - "Agaciro." The word is heard everywhere in Rwanda. On the radio, in newspapers -- it is even painted on cars, buildings, and billboards. In the local Kinyarwanda language, the word Agaciro means "dignity," "pride" "worth." 

The Agaciro Development Fund was created in August by President Paul Kagame, to allow Rwandans to take care of their own national development. According to Finance Minister John Rwangombwa, it will also allow Rwanda to increase its financial independence. The fund is financed by the voluntary contributions of Rwandan citizens both residents at home and abroad, by private companies and by friends of Rwanda.

The idea of reducing Rwanda's dependence on foreign aid began at the time of the National Dialogue of 2011 (Umushyikirano), when the president met representatives of the Rwandan population. Rwanda is still highly dependent on foreign aid, having practically been placed on life support since the 1994 genocide, with 45% of its national budget coming from international assistance.

Competition and overzealousness

Since the fund was launched, managers in the public and private sector have been engaging in a bona fide competition to see who could collect the most money. Some employers have even been withholding their employees' contribution from their paychecks.

"Most of the civil servants voluntarily agreed to give up one-tenth of their salaries, to be withheld over ten months," says an employment law specialist in Kigali. "Because of their patriotism, some who were paying back loans have had to tighten their belts even more."

Everyone is supposed to contribute, via banks as well as text messages, which allow each citizen to pay 500 Rwandan Francs ($0.80) or 1,000 Rwandan Francs ($1.60) to the Agaciro Fund. The Rwanda diaspora can use the Internet to donate to the dedicated accounts opened in different Rwandan banks.

Many local elected officials are going door-to-door to tell people about the fund and urge them to contribute. "Our akagari [a local administrative area] promised to pay two million Rwandan Francs ($3,180) to the fund, but we don't even have one million. Everyone needs to make a sacrifice if we are to collect this sum," says a local official in Kigali.

Other officials, "to motivate the undecided or the poorest people, come with lists of neighbors who have contributed. When a person looks at the list, they’re ashamed and feel obliged to give more so that they are not the last one. This is another way of pushing people to give money to the fund," says a Kigali human rights activist. "In one high school, an official said that students who could not contribute to the fund were 'worthless'."

Teachers were the first to show serious discontent when they learned that a tenth of their salaries would be withheld. The Rwandan finance minister, who is in charge of the fund, has banned this. "Citizens should not be forced to give," he says. "Contributing to Agaciro must come from patriotic spirit, not from competition."

“Foreign aid is poison”

According to Kampeta Sayinzoga, permanent secretary of the finance ministry, the Agaciro fund has already raised about 22 billion Rwandan Francs ($35 million).  The money will go, among other things, to projects to provide rural regions with electricity.

For many Rwandans, though, Agaciro is also like a "sovereignty fund," as its aim is to demonstrate Rwanda's ability to take care of its own development. President Paul Kagame repeats constantly: "Foreign aid is a poison. We need to learn how to do without."

Many donors recently cut their assistance to Rwanda after a UN report came out accusing Kigali of supporting the M23 armed rebels in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The United States was the first to suspend its military aid to Kigali, followed by developmental aid from the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden.

The government, which firmly rejected the accusations, considers these retaliatory measures unfair, and is not showing any signs it will give in to the foreign donors' pressure. Meanwhile, more and more pressure to give is placed on Rwanda themselves. And most agree that in the long run that may be better for all.

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