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A healthier, more prosperous Rwanda

Sun., March 2, 2008

KIGALI, Rwanda – When President Bush came here last month on his five-nation Africa tour, he paid a solemn visit to the site where 250,000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried, laying a wreath and walking quietly along a row of concrete slabs marking mass graves.

But government officials here say Bush’s more important act that day was something else: He signed a deal to promote bilateral U.S.-Rwandan investment.

Rwanda hasn’t forgotten the genocide, but it’s moving forward, and 14 years later this tiny central African nation boasts one of the most stable and rapidly expanding economies in the region. Poverty and illiteracy are declining, immunization rates are up, HIV and malaria have been dramatically curtailed, and new industries are experiencing sudden booms.

The country’s rebirth under President Paul Kagame – a bookish former rebel leader – was noted last year by the Ibrahim Index, a scale that rates African countries on political and economic freedoms, calling Rwanda the most improved country over the past five years.

“After the genocide everyone was down, and there was a lot of confusion. Now we are on the right track,” said Kainamura Issa, co-founder of Index, a local technology magazine.

Under Kagame, the government has pumped money into roads and electricity networks and slashed red tape on businesses in a bid to lure foreign investors. Since 1994, Rwanda’s economy has grown at a 6 percent clip annually.

American corporate giants have been drawn to this tiny, hilly nation, where 8 million people are crammed into a space smaller than Maryland.

Starbucks and Costco have signed deals with Rwandan coffee growers to sell their beans in U.S. stores. Government officials say Microsoft has floated a plan to enable the Senate to draft and edit legislation electronically.

“There is a wave of enthusiasm right now for Rwanda,” said Josh Ruxin, a Columbia University public health professor who lives there.

To restore order after 1994 – when Hutu militias slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus over 100 days – Kagame’s Tutsi-led government assumed complete control.

Kagame has a reputation as a micromanager, overseeing everything from the AIDS policy to something he has dubbed “Vision 2020,” a high-minded if quixotic plan to turn this overwhelmingly rural nation into a regional hub for information technology.

More worryingly, say human rights groups, he has imposed strict laws over free speech to stop people from inciting ethnic hatred, and some journalists have been beaten, jailed or driven to exile for critical stories.

Rwandan officials prefer to discuss the country’s record on AIDS. Bush’s global anti-AIDS program has helped put 50,000 Rwandan AIDS patients on life-saving drugs, although an additional 25,000 still lack access.

Six years ago, the U.N. estimated that 8.9 percent of Rwandan adults were living with HIV; by last year that had fallen to 3 percent.

Rwanda has also expanded access to primary health care around the country. Nearly all children have been immunized against basic diseases, among the best rates in Africa.

“In the next five years, it’s conceivable there will essentially be universal access to health care,” said Ruxin. “They still have a way to go, but that’s astonishing.”


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