HOPE: Rwanda’s Greatest (un)Natural Resource

Rwanda is a small, land-locked country in the middle of what some have called the “hopeless continent”. Rwanda cannot claim diamonds, gold or oil among its natural resources, as some African neighbors can. Worse, eighteen years ago this month, something akin to hell on earth devastated this impoverished country and decimated what infrastructure and social systems it had. While I am presently located near the center of the terrible atrocities of 1994, there seems no doubt that more has been accomplished to-date than anyone thought possible. With little in the way of land, few natural resources and no port, nobody would have bet on Rwanda recovering after the genocide the way it has. What is the source of the magic? After three years living here in Rwanda, I’ve discovered that the missing ingredient is easier to identify when I visit a country where it is in short supply (like my own United States); I think the best word for this ingredient is “hope”.

An insightful newspaper editorial recently pondered why the rest of the world is perplexed by Rwanda “as a little country with such big ambitions.” The author helps us understand why Rwanda has a self-determinism that outstrips what can rationally be achieved from its current resources. Grand vision inspires grand accomplishments; good leaders develop consensual policies for collective well-being; international best practices illuminate a path to progress locally; traditional values blend with (even guide) modern development theory. Hope fuels this cycle to reach seemingly impossible destinations, and as participants surprise themselves with what they have accomplished, hope is fueled to do more of the same. Without this key ingredient, there is insufficient vision, leadership, progress and development for such a cycle to gain momentum. With sufficient quantities of hope, however, the virtuous cycle races faster and faster. Rwanda has momentum. Rwanda is on a roll unlike any other country I know.

John Rwangombwa, Rwanda’s Minister of Finance & Economic Planning, recently published an article in the Wall Street Journal. In it, Mr. Rwangombwa states, “As Rwandans, we know a thing or two about the resiliency of hope. We have learned it can endure and thrive in the most difficult conditions imaginable.” In the article, he describes some of the impossible accomplishments Rwanda has achieved against the odds: Since 2006, the poverty rate has been reduced from 57% to 45%, child mortality rates have been reduced by 41%, mothers now give birth to an average of 4.5 children instead of 6.1 (particularly important in Africa’s most densely populated country), and the number of children attending secondary school has doubled. Such progress could make even a small country believe anything is possible.

Rwandans and foreigners are drawn to this amazing case study, not because of what the country has, but because of what the country hopes. Today’s resources need not get in the way of implementing tomorrow’s dreams. Every country would do well to do exploration for hope. I can honestly say I’d rather live and work in a place that has hope than in a country with any amount of oil or other resources.

Onward and upward,

– Carter