Bill Clinton failed to stop genocide in Rwanda, but his foundation is quietly making amends

In the summer of 1994, between 500,000 and one million Rwandans were slaughtered by their own countrymen—an exact death toll has never been pinpointed. The international community stood by in quiet horror, and watched. Most notably among them, the United States of America.

President Bill Clinton was in office at the time. His administration was weathering heavy criticism for the deaths of several US soldiers on a 1993 mission in Somalia. The decision against intervention in Rwanda is often attributed to fears of a repeat incident. And, of course, the tiny central African nation boasted little impetus by way of mineral wealth or oil reserves.

On a 1998 state visit to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, Clinton formally apologized for US inaction. “It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror,” he said.

In a 2013 interview with CNBC, he was more frank: “If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost,” he admitted. “It had an enduring impact on me.” He estimated that if the US had provided as few as 10,000 troops, more than 300,000 Rwandan lives could have been spared.

It might be said that, since leaving office and forming his eponymous foundation, Clinton has attempted to make concrete amends. Today, Rwanda is one of four countries in which the Clinton Foundation operates its Clinton Development Initiative (CDI), intended to “empower smallholder farmers to increase their economic potential,” according to organizational literature. (The Clinton Foundation was unable to offer comment at this time.)

Despite a recent development boom in Kigali, which aims to refashion itself as a center of business for the African continent, 80% of the Rwandan population is involved in agriculture, with the vast majority being subsistence farmers working less than two-and-a-half acres of rural land.

While international observers have obsessed over the ascent of urban Rwanda—which is repeatedly billed as “the African Singapore,” or “the Switzerland of Africa”—CDI focuses on this quiet, agrarian majority. Enter the CDI’s Anchor Farm Project, launched in 2006. “We could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost.” 

The Anchor Farm Project seeks to integrate independent farmers with Rwanda’s growing formal economy. In cooperation with the Rwandan government and local agribusinesses, CDI has established the titular “anchor farm”: a tract of commercial land used grow a “high-quality soya, maize, and vegetable seeds.” CDI has invested in equipment and technologies most smallholder farmers would not have access to, which are used to produce the grains and seeds they need, as well as connect smallholder farmers to formal markets. It aims strengthen the production-power of subsistence farmers to the point at which they might develop a surplus and enter the larger Rwandan marketplace, thus transcending subsistence.

In his 2005 book, Collapse, Jared Diamond identified the Rwandan genocide as a distinctly Malthusian crisis: that the Rwandan government was unable to cope with a rising pre-genocide population and increased competition for land. In a report compiled for the Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, Karol Boudreax, a senior research associate with the Mercatus Center, disagrees:

“By focusing on land-related conflict, Diamond overlooks factors that kept Rwandans on rural land: lack of a formal land market that would allow people to sell land and move to more urbanized areas, government policies that limited the movement of citizens from the countryside to urban centers, tightly controlled markets that limited entrepreneurial opportunities for people who might wish to leave farms, and a general pro-rural ideology imposed by the pre-genocide Habyarinama government.”

Boudreaux argues that government policies which “limited land sales, freedom of movement and labor opportunities” ultimately “contributed in important ways to discontent among Rwandans” in the run-up to 1994. In effect, CDI’s Anchor Farm Project responds to both of these theories. It aims to make rural Rwanda a more desirable place to live, and by empowering rural Rwandans to engage more directly with the formal marketplace, CDI is also developing a more definate framework in which land sales, internal movement, and labor opportunities can develop.

Is assisting in the solidification of the Rwandan economy a way of atoning for Clinton’s failure to address the genocide in 1994? Whether consciously or not, the Clinton Foundation is changing the conditions associated with Rwanda’s tragedy. World leaders should take note: the impact is far more practically helpful than anything achieved by televised apology tours.

You can follow Jake on Twitter at @jakeflanagin. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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