Our work in Rwanda

Paul Anticoni, World Jewish Relief’s Chief Executive on his recent visit to see our work in Rwanda

I last visited Rwanda in 1997, still a dark period in the country’s life. Wounds were raw, scars of conflict apparent and international agencies ruled the roost rebuilding destroyed infrastructure.

Almost 20 years on, the change is remarkable. A new airport, a modern Kigali, mobiles everywhere and a country going through rapid economic growth. Firm government has brought strict order, growth, control and national cohesion. But the wounds are still there, still painful and every issue, discussion, timeline seems to navigate around the genocide. The country moves on rapidly, but the memories are as vivid as ever.

The genocide frames everything. People seem more willing to tell their story than previously. Someone spontaneously told me the horrific narrative of them fleeing from the militia, hiding in a church, seeing their sister dragged away and then fleeing into farmland. 

Rwanda’s “Vision 2020” strategy seeks to transform the country from a low-income agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy with a middle-income country status by 2020. These goals build on remarkable development successes over the last decade, which include high growth, rapid poverty reduction and reduced inequality. Between 2001 and 2014, the World Bank records real GDP growth averaging about 8% per annum.

Our project with UNM, funded by Comic Relief, attempts to encourage and assist young survivors to significantly improve their income through horticultural improvements, productivity, cooperative work and business assistance.

Paul   rwanda detail
Paul meets some young farmers growing and selling passion fruit

The project requires a disciplined, results-orientated, task-focused and strategic approach that is alien to many in Rwanda. My trip reminded me that much of Rwanda’s emerging middle class was slaughtered in 1994 and human resource capabilities throughout the country took a huge hit. Yet with the help of an agronomist, we are making steps towards helping genocide survivors to become self-sufficient farmers. We are looking at new crops, with passion fruits the latest off the production line, supporting these young farmers to make opportunities for themselves. 

Our other project in Rwanda, with SACCA, takes children off the street and gives them a hand-up in life. Almost 3,000 kids have passed through the organisation’s safety net. We met some of the success stories and even this tough-as-nails CEO had a tear in his eye. Orphan survivors with incomprehensible stories poised to become doctors, teachers, having their own families and employees. So many of them now give back to SACCA or to other ex-kids on the street.

This is a fundamentally Jewish story -  a shared history of persecution and genocide and a shared belief that we can change the future for the better. It is one that I am immensely proud of.

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