Students in the Ford Dorsey Program in International Policy Studies (IPS) visited Rwanda over spring break. This student-led study trip was conceived and coordinated by second-year students Micaela Hellman-Tincher, Lukas Friedemann, and Danny Buerkli, giving 18 first-year students an experience they’ll never forget. But, why Rwanda?
“Nearly twenty years ago, this was a country in the midst of a terrible genocide,” says IPS Director Kathryn Stoner. “This trip to Rwanda, although short, enabled students to see how a divided country can reconcile and rebuild while facing extreme poverty and few resources. Students were able to take knowledge acquired in the classroom and see how it might apply in a real-world situation.”
The students traveled to several regions in Rwanda and learned first-hand how a small, landlocked country, at one time torn by genocide, is slowly transforming itself.
According to student leader Danny Buerkli, "Organizing this study trip was a great experience. It was an opportunity to give back to the program and to deepen our own understanding of Rwanda. And Professor Jim Fearon, our faculty leader, contributed so much to the trip with his unparalleled understanding of ethnic conflicts."
Students wrote extensively about the trip and share some highlights below.
This was my first trip to Africa, and really my first to a developing country. Of course, I gained perspective on true human suffering, something that can easily be lost while studying at Stanford. However, I drew the most value from deeply pondering major international and humanitarian issues in a specific setting with a small group of people all doing the same. I had more experiences debating political vs. economic development than I would have had in a year here at Stanford. Complete immersion, even if just for a week, was a great experience.
Our first trip within Rwanda was to a genocide memorial site. The memorial helped us comprehend the extent and implications of the peace and justice process in Rwanda. The Rwandan people we met conveyed clearly that reconciliation among the different ethnic groups was built on this premise: first, peace; second, development.
Traveling alone, I would never have had the chance to participate in such intimate discussions with the Minister of Health, Agnes Binagwaho; the Permanent Secretary of MINAFFET, Mary Baine; or the President, Paul Kagame. I also enjoyed the meetings with the Akilah Institute, an organization that trains and educates women who might otherwise find it difficult to find employment. As one interested in the microfinance and education sectors, I appreciated hearing how the organization was carefully planning to help women finance tuition costs through micro-loans.
When we visited the memorial at Nyamata Church where thousands of men, women and children were slain in 1994, I was incredibly affected by the stoic manner in which the woman who led our tour, probably my age and seven months pregnant, recalled stories of the genocide. This interaction cemented my awareness that a vast percentage of the population (about 12 million) lives with memories of the genocide, either as survivors or perpetrators, in a country with only seven practicing psychiatrists (there were none in 1994). The implications of this reality has encouraged me to pursue a much deeper understanding of transitional justice and what judicial mechanisms can be employed to encourage post-conflict justice and reconciliation.
I was amazed by the orphan village we visited in eastern Rwanda. Each child is assigned work such as farming or cooking. The children are studying a wide range of subjects, including math, history, chemistry, English, and French. One of the kids told me about his dream to start a business trading livestock domestically and internationally, which was why he studied economics. The children’s ambitious plans and bright faces touched my heart.
Our meeting with President Kagame was definitely one of the highlights of this trip for me. The fact that he spent more than two hours with us, answering all the questions we had posed, attested to the depth of the meeting. While there was clearly a limit to how much he could share with us, I thought that he was candid about the challenges and frustrations that Rwanda has had to face during its reconstruction.
Throughout the week, there were many times when class material from our first two quarters literally “came to life” during our meetings. When we met with the CEO of Crystal Ventures, John Birungi, he talked about the merits of an import substitution (IS) strategy for Rwanda. Most of us had taken the IPS course on International Trade, and we ended up in a lively discussion about the merits and limitations of an IS strategy. When we met with Mike Hammond of the Department for International Development (DFID) and his staff, we gained insight into the tension between DFID’s development goals and the Rwandan government’s interests. Reading about issues of development is much different than listening to a conversation between staff members regarding the actual trade-offs they must make.
I have learned many things in my short time in Rwanda, many of which will stay with me for a long time, and many of which I am still slowly processing. But the things that will stay with me most are:
- Nothing is black or white. Between a democracy that fails to provide economic development and adequate public services, and an authoritarian regime that pulls its people out of poverty and solves public health issues while restricting some civil liberties, which is better? I no longer think this question can be answered in an absolute manner.
- There is a distinction between reconciliation and peaceful cohabitation. Sometimes the former is beyond what is reasonably possible, and the latter is the only road to peace.
- Policymaking has more challenges than I could have ever possibly imagined. From the time a need is revealed, to when an idea is formed, to when a policy is formulated and then implemented, a successful outcome is never guaranteed, and there are many things that can go wrong along the way to turn a good idea into a policy with awful consequences.
Without this trip, it is unlikely that I would have had the chance to get to know Rwanda in such depth. On our small group trips, we saw trucks carrying petroleum from Uganda, reminding us of the development challenges of a landlocked country. On another occasion, we were faced with the juxtaposition of a Rwandan farmer, who receives 25 cents for a kilogram of coffee beans he harvests, and our guide, who took us to the coffee washing station and was managing his schedule on the newest iPad Mini. I found this a fascinating metaphor for the growing inequality and societal challenges that lie ahead.