Nothing in common? The UK, Rwanda and why the Commonwealth is more relevant than we thought
A guest post by End of the World News
Although it showed up only faintly on the British media radar, a momentous thing happened at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad and Tobago late last year : tiny, troubled Rwanda was admitted to the club.
For those of us who have closely followed the fortunes of the country in its reconstruction efforts since the catastrophic civil war and genocide in 1994, it did not come as a surprise. The majority of British citizens however would probably have been quite shocked that a small, strategically insignificant and historically francophone country (initially colonised by Germany, and later transferred to Belgium) had been admitted to the British Commonwealth of nations. However, whether or not you knew it was on the cards, it is certainly a significant event in post-colonial relations. It raises important and timely questions about an institution which has been hailed as both an outdated ‘colonial hangover’, and the last great bastion of British values of democracy and justice abroad.
Firstly, we need to consider what this incident reveals about the nature of 21st century British relations with developing countries. Rwanda is in fact not the first member to be accepted into the Commonwealth on grounds other than a colonial connection. Former Portuguese colony Mozambique joined the club in 1995. What the two have in ‘common’ is their significant aid relationships with the UK. Whilst a number of other EU countries have questioned the democratic and human rights credentials of the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, the UK has persistently been one of his most vocal supporters and has emerged as the country’s largest bilateral donor. Meanwhile, relations with former allies France, although now improving, have been dismal for well documented reasons.
You might well ask then, if Rwanda already has a good relationship with the UK, what purpose is to be served by joining the Commonwealth, a largely ceremonial institution? When you scratch the surface, the answer becomes obvious. The fact is that the UK’s aid relationships (although built on the fuzzy foundations of an aid regime which preaches the distribution of financial and technical assistance on the basis of need and merit, ie poverty and good governance) are in fact often intensely political. The UK government has continued to support Rwanda through thick and thin (with just the odd hiccup) because it is politically motivated to do so. On the one hand, it likes Kagame’s vision for economic development – because it doesn’t substantively question its own. On the other hand, despite ongoing question marks over the quality of democracy and human rights, DFID and our political leaders enjoy presenting the Rwandan success story. Guilt over inaction in 1994, and question marks over the motivation and efficacy of international aid can both be obscured very well by the story of a country recovering and developing rapidly after such unimaginable violence – and doing so off the back of British support.
Secondly then, we need to consider what role the Commonwealth has come to play in this aid relationship and what this represents for countries like Rwanda. Rwanda itself is not merely a pawn in a cunning plan. Kagame and his government understand very well the political nature of the UK’s support for their regime, and encouraged by the British government they have sought to cement that relationship by joining the Commonwealth. Of course it has more than a little to do with his desire to stick two fingers up to the French as well, with whom Rwanda has recently resumed diplomatic relations… but we won’t get into that here!From the perspective of the British establishment the Commonwealth is lauded as institution which upholds and promotes British democratic values throughout the world. When Rwanda became associated with this it was beneficial for both countries. By so publically demonstrating their commitment to British values Rwanda gains both a reputational and strategic advantage in its aid relationships with the UK and her allies across the world. At the same time, after many years of substantial financial support the UK’s engagement with Rwanda is high stakes. Now the UK has an opportunity to gently encourage democratic reform at a safe political distance from the glare of the development industry and multi agency strategies in Rwanda. Furthermore it can also justify DFID’s continued support to Rwanda on the grounds that its moves to join the Commonwealth have demonstrated commitment to those very values, even if, as in the case of other members, some actions on the ground may seem to contradict this. Of course, this brings us a full circle and leaves us asking: what does the Commonwealth really represent?