You live outside the developing world and want to make a name for yourself? There is a sure path to follow. Find work in the least developed of countries, preferably those coming out of conflict. Get involved in aid work. This way you will earn the gratitude of people broken by conflict. You will also gain partial knowledge about the people and the country. From that limited knowledge, sifted through your cultural and intellectual assumptions, you conclude that it is necessary to save these people from their governments and that the best way to do this is to graduate to human rights advocacy.
The next step is to get into academia, write papers and publish books on your experiences working among the wretched of the earth and generally become an expert. A necessary qualification of your expertise is that you must shoot down everything those unfortunate people do to get up and move forward.
This may appear too simple and even sound unfair, but it is a fairly accurate description of the career path of a good number of foreigners who have worked in Africa, now and in the past.
When a country is nearly destroyed and the people are down, many of these people descend on the place in droves and offer to help. They come as unknown individuals and leave as famous people.
They have been described, very imaginatively, as akin to vultures, skinny from long spells of starvation in the sky, which suddenly see a carcase and swoop down on it, tear it apart, gorge themselves on its flesh and then leave it as heavy, fattened creatures with difficulty in flying. And because of this satisfying experience, they keep on the lookout for other carcases.
Seventeen years ago, Rwandans were down and nearly out. As the country was being torn apart, no one showed up. When it was over, many people from across the world came to help (some genuinely, others to build careers). In what should be strange, but is quite understandable, most of them have turned into the harshest critics of Rwanda.
The majority of these good people turned detractors have followed a common career route. Nearly all of them started work in NGOs. They then moved to human rights organisations, usually hopping from one to the other effortlessly and for selfish reasons – better conditions, ego, or because of being sacked by the other organisation.
Many of them used their presence on the ground to research on what brought the country down in the first place and on innovative approaches government has designed to rebuild the country. So, they research into the genocide, gacaca, and reintegration and reconciliation processes. From this work they earn degrees, publish papers and find their way into the newly-formed, fashionable and generously-funded university faculties – invariably, centres of human rights studies and conflict management in the developing world. Apparently, there are no exciting human rights issues in other parts of the world.
This has been the path of such individuals as Lars Waldorf and Scott Straus, editors of a forthcoming book on Rwanda in which they have assembled articles of the most virulent detractors of the country.
It is the route followed by Timothy Longman and Susan Thomson, both of whom are contributors to the book. Ditto Carina Tertsakian. She has not yet broken into academia, but do not be surprised if you next hear she is professor of something.
Now, what happens when the carcase was attacked before it became, well, a carcase? What happens when it shows signs of recovery and eventually returns to good health as Rwanda has become in the last seventeen years?
That is when there is so much hatred for a country that refuses to die or remain on life support. When a country is out of intensive care, it needs fewer nurses attending to it. It tells the NGOs and others who hover around the sick state that some of their work is no longer needed and that most of what they had been doing can be handled by the state.
Now, this is the surest way to earn the ire of the NGOs. Most of them make their mark by setting themselves up against the “might” and “errors” of the state. Telling some of them that they are irrelevant gives them a double excuse of counter-weight and sworn enemy to the state.
The rights groups must also show that the human rights situation has not changed in order to retain their relevance.
Opportunist academics take a similar position for the same reasons – to keep alive their academic pursuits and lucrative careers and retain some form of relevance.
Is it surprising therefore that as Rwandans mark seventeen years after the genocide, during which time they have restored hope and their dignity, reconstructed individual and national lives to a point of envy, and earned international respect, these beneficiaries of the Rwandan experience should gang together to carry out their common project? Hardly, when their intention is to reject the very idea that Rwanda is very healthy and not the carcase that will attract all manner of vultures.