On August 13th, the Financial Times published a story with a pregnant headline that screamed: “Rwanda: where even poverty data must toe Kagame’s line”
In it, the paper basically accused government officials of “doctoring” poverty data to suit an alleged President Paul Kagame’s development “miracle” narrative in the country.
Specifically, the story contests National Institute of Statistics’ “key conclusion─that poverty fell substantively between 2010/11 and 2013/14” and its 2015 report that showed “poverty had fallen from 44.1 Percent of the population in 2011 to 39.1 percent in 2014”.
Instead, the authors allege that poverty didn’t only increase in that period, but: “The FT analysis of the same data contradicts that finding, suggesting there has been a consistent attempt since 2015 to misrepresent the results”
As we were still chewing on this, four days later, on August 17, The Economist published a story headlined: “The Devil in the Details: Has Rwanda Been Fiddling its numbers”?
Interestingly the content and charges in the Economist’s story are the same as those in the Financial Times and even some of the individual sources cited are the same─such as Sam Desiere of the University of Leuven in Belgium.
After reading these stories, I remembered that thirteen days earlier, on August 3, Stephen Paduano had published a story in The Atlantic headlined “China’s Investments in Rwanda Raise Familiar Questions about Debt”. In the story, the author claims that the country’s “debt-to-GDP ratio…had risen to 53 percent” and Rwanda was “sleepwalking toward a territory that some of its fellow African states… (Like Zambia) have perilously entered…the Chinese debt trap’”
But at the end of last year, the IMF put Rwanda’s debt-to-GDP at 32.9 percent while the country Prime Minister, Dr Edouard Ngirente put it at “29% in 2018 against a [regional] threshold of 50%”; according to The Chronicles of July 31, 2019.
Earlier, on June 24, President Kagame had a tasty interview with a French television, France 24 that, according to the president’s handlers, was supposed to discuss development in the country and the journalist veered into human rights to which the president responded by wondering how there can be one part of the world that monitors human rights elsewhere and another that is supposed to give answers and famously asked: “Who are you”?
To some observers and government defenders, these stories aren’t unconnected.
The response to these stories was as swift as it came from the high and mighty in our land and elsewhere─and the-not-so-mighty in our midst.
In a statement on August 16, the World Bank defended Rwanda’s poverty data and methodology used to measure it while the country’s Minister of Finance Dr Uzziel Ndagijimana responded on two separate occasions defending the country’s development trajectory; its poverty measuring methodology and its debt-management credentials.
To understand how damaging these stories must have been interpreted by policymakers, even President Kagame weighed in.
Kagame was cited in The Chronicles of August 14 as telling a group of youths: “First of all, I wish I could make any data tow my line because my line am convinced is a good one”. He added: “I will bet with anyone that there is nothing fake or fabricated or doctored about the progress we are making”
So far, most commentators have largely focused on the question of “who is right” and “who is wrong”.
Now, that’s an important question to discern.
But considering that there isn’t one way to measure poverty and, as a native who comprehends and appreciates the commendable progress the country has made so far with limited resources and competing priorities, my interest here is to share what this contest about poverty data tell us about the country’s development trajectory and future relations with development partners.
First of all, I don’t believe that the bigger story here is a fight to unearth the “truth” about poverty levels or defining the “right” methodology to measure it.
Second, I also find it difficult to believe that both the Financial Times and The Economist suddenly developed interest, at the same time, in the poverty data of five or eight years ago, in a country the former describes as “a small mountain state”.
Instead, in the larger scheme of things, I find this to also constitute a contest to define what President Kagame has or hasn’t achieved and whether he is a visionary who is transforming the country or an autocrat who has stifled democracy and development.
Analytically, this contest between the country’s leaders and western storytellers is, in effect, related to two stories that have thus far defined post-genocide Rwanda in the western media and minds.
The first story is about the country’s economic and social development and the second is about democracy and human rights.
The first story has, until now, described the post-genocide material development as a miracle informed by high poverty reduction levels; high economic growth of between 6-10% in the last 20 years; high ease of doing business figures; intolerance to corruption; cleanliness; high-rise building and skyscrapers dotting Kigali City and other towns, good use of donor funds, etc.
The second story, which is told by international human rights groups; media watchdogs; some democracy activists and the country’s dissidents is a country that lacks democracy, abuses human rights and stifles the media.
Now, with the new narrative of “fake” poverty data, there are those who believe there is an attempt to coalesce the two stories above into one to make the post-genocide story, whether in terms of democratic governance or economic development, “negative” or a “lie”.
That’s why, I suspect, President Kagame referred to the Financial Times‘ story as “propaganda”.
That’s also why some are wondering how both the Financial Times and The Economist suddenly developed interest and at the same time, in the Country’s poverty levels of 2011-2014 when we are in 2019!
If this diagnosis is correct, that tells us that the contestation isn’t over; it’s only beginning and whether not the country retains the goodwill of development partners, will, in part, depend on who wins this contest to define the “truth” about post-genocide development.
This brings me to the second point; which is that while government officials are quick to denounce western media and organizations that question the country’s democratic credentials or development indicators; they are also, by the same measure, always willing and happy to celebrate and share those figures that hail the country achievements and, at the same time, willingly welcome western storytellers and give them unfettered access and interviews that local journalists only dream of.
That partly explains why, as we have pointed out in the past, President Kagame has, by far, had more one-on-one interviews with western journalists than local journalists or media outlets.
In other words, the paradox with our officials is that while they denounce the western media as biased and ideologically anti-Rwanda and Africa; in practice, they welcome with open hands and celebrate when they write or air “good” stories!
In fact, unlike journalists from the west, I would even add that, on a few occasions when the President has been interviewed by local journalists, it hasn’t been a one-on-one basis but his handlers have had to “add up” journalists and bring together two or three to interview him!
I would add that, this lack of confidence and trust in local journalists is also connected to the broader thinking among some public officials who claim that citizens somehow need the “civilizing” hand of government to “wake them up and see light” and embrace their interests rather than their “backwardness” or “illiteracy”!
In Part, this means that, as I have also argued before, the president’s media and communication handlers has more faith and trust in foreign journalists and their media outlets than local journalists and their media houses; despite possible arguments to the contrary; just as some officials wrongly believe that ordinary citizens “don’t know what they want” yet they always celebrate their votes for the president and other elected office holders; whether MPs, senators or locals officials.
In that sense then, there is a symbiotic relationship between our government officials and western storytellers; they feed on each other and since the Rwanda story sells and is craved by western media and, since our officials also crave appearing in western media, the current contest was inevitable.
That also tells us that while narratives of development in wealthy polities are defined by those nation’s media outlets and related institutions, ours seem headed to be defined by foreign media since our media is still dearly weak and not taken seriously by our leaders.
In truth though, our officials and western journalists share a certain taken-for-granted and un-internalized ideological appreciation for each other; and we shall leave it here!