Batteries, I Mean Land Rover, Not Included

July 19, 2008
Kibungo, Rwanda

Let’s play the word association game…so when I say something you respond with whatever pops in your head. So for example, I say “Mickey” and you say “mouse.” I say “karaoke” and you say “Bon Jovi.” I say “industry” and you say “international development organizations”…..huh? What an oxymoron!…like jumbo shrimp or big NYC apartment or healthy cigarette (sorry American Spirits smokers) or chatroom party animal. Yet, there is something to this notion of the international development industry.

Despite its poverty, Kigali is not unlike other African capitals with a few posh neighbors lined with signs such as USAID, GTZ, Oxfam, etc. Locals walk along the roadside carting timber, bananas, and water jugs on their heads with mammoth four wheel drive vehicles blistering by with a logo of some international development agency blazoned across the side. This is the norm. It seems that international development organizations, often one of the biggest vehicles of money flow into a country such as Rwanda takes the place of individual and institutional investors in industries such as textiles, food processing, etc. It creates jobs like program officers and outreach specialists in organizations’ programs. It creates linkages to spark job creation in other arenas as well such as computer printer shops and gas stations (those Land Rovers need to fill up an awful lot!). So when locals, as they often do, suggest that we should “just put the driver on the phone when you need directions” or question, “how much money do you have?” we should not be taken aback, but rather take it in stride and acquiesce. Or should we?

Do we have a responsibility to change the norm? And should we want to?

Should we aim to change the mindset that outside development intervention symbolizes a dollar sign? Should we aim to change the idea that international development organizations are the main vehicle for economic growth? Don’t we increase chances for sustainable Rwandan growth without dependency on international development $$?

And by the way, we are a start-up enterprise, which is quite resourceful, but working on a shoestring budget. We walk or take public transport almost everywhere. Isn’t that how most entrepreneurs do it? If we had a garage, we’d be working in it right now.

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