RWANDA: Rwanda`s giant stride: A promising walk
Hilary Benn

Sunday, 30 October 2005

The last time I visited Rwanda was for the 10th anniversary commemoration of the Genocide. It was a deeply moving experience. The horror of the Genocide, and the gradual breakdown which preceded it, was compounded by the failure of the international community to act. No one can forget what happened, and nor should they. It is hard therefore to believe just how far Rwanda has come since that time.

All Rwandans should be proud of what they have achieved. They have not just pulled back from the abyss, but since that time have reduced poverty by 10%, lifting 800,000 thousand people out of extreme poverty. Strong and sustained economic growth, averaging over 10% a year over the past 10 years, has helped make this happen.

At the same time free primary school has helped increase enrolment from 1 million in 1995, to 1.7 million last year. This puts Rwanda on track to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Rwanda has ensured boys and girls are enrolled equally. And this is important: girls are often disadvantaged and miss out on schooling in favour of boys, but if you educate a young woman, you educate her future family.

A referendum on the new constitution, and Rwanda`s first multi-party elections in 2003, have been a powerful step forward. Rwanda boasts more female members of parliament, almost half of the members, than any country in the world. In the UK, the parliament in which I sit achieved our best ever results in terms of gender equity at our recent elections in May, but only 20% of those elected to parliament are female.

This progress is impressive. The UK is working hard in supporting the people of Rwanda to achieve their vision over the next decade or more, and that is why the UK will maintain its long-term support to Rwanda. Our support will reach $83 million this year alone.

And Rwanda needs this kind of long-term help. Rwanda is Africa`s most densely populated country, and the population is still growing. Many skilled people were killed during the genocide; there is a huge number of orphans, including 150,000 orphan headed households, and the prisons are full of people accused of genocide related crimes. Many people are still being absorbed back into their communities, a repeated test of peaceful reconciliation.

But Rwanda shows what can be achieved if you have that most fundamental of all things. Peace. And of all the regions of Africa, peace is needed in the Great Lakes most. And when there is peace, governments can invest in their people. Just over the border in Burundi, peace has allowed a newly elected government to also promise free education, abolishing yearly fees of $1.5. And the first day of a new school term saw 500,000 thousand children turning up ready to learn. I`m pleased that DFID has been able to help Burundi meet some of these urgent education needs with $3.5 million, and we are willing to do more.

Progress is being made across all of Africa. Since 1999, peace agreements have brought to an end 10 wars on the continent. Inflation is a fifth what it was a decade ago, and economic growth in sixteen African countries has averaged over 4% in the last decade, higher than in any major developed country.

But we know what the scale of the challenge is. This is one of the reasons why we have put Africa at the centre of both of our Presidencies of the G8 and EU in 2005. Because we all know that, on current progress, Africa will not meet the Millennium Development Goals, including halving poverty by 2015, unless there is dramatic change.

We are not helpless however. We have now, for the first time ever, the chance to end poverty, and this year has been an extraordinary year for development and for Africa.

In March, the Commission for Africa, led by Tony Blair, published its powerful report. In May, Europe agreed to double its aid by 2010, and 15 member states committed to achieving the long-held UN target of providing 0.7% of national income as aid by 2015.

In July, at Gleneagles, G8 leaders added their pledges to those of the EU, and agreed that global aid will rise by almost $50 billion a year by 2010. Half of this aid will go to Africa, as called for by the Commission for Africa. And then in September the committees of the IMF and World Bank agreed the G8 proposal to cancel over $55 billion of poor country debt once and for all.

More aid is vital, but it must be better aid too. Our aid must build the capacity of countries to eliminate poverty through their own efforts, not do it for them. After all we want lasting results.

At the United Nations Millennium Review Summit in September, the largest ever gathering of world leaders took another step forward. On the 60th anniversary of its foundation, the UN for the first time resolved that the world has a responsibility to protect citizens from genocide or crimes against humanity when their own states cannot or will not protect them - or are committing these crimes themselves. The world has learnt from Rwanda`s bitter experience.
World leaders also agreed a new council for human rights, a new Peacebuilding Commission to help countries recover from conflict, and a new UN fund for humanitarian crises like Darfur, or Niger.

Africa`s future rests - rightly - in Africa`s hands. And that should fill us with hope and confidence. Because Africa has as much potential, creativity, passion and hope as any other continent on the planet. When all of that is set free, everything is possible.
There is an old African proverb: `When a mountain is in your path, do not sit at its foot and cry. Get up and climb it.`

We do indeed have a mountain to climb, but together Africa, and its partners, have started the long climb together.

Hilary Benn is a Member of Parliament and British Secretary of State for International Development