President Paul Kagame has overseen a miracle. From the ashes of a genocide he has built a thriving economy, clamped down on corruption and lifted thousands of people out of poverty, official data show.
In turn, the country has become a darling of the development community. The World Bank has committed more than $4bn to the country since the 1994 genocide and championed huge structural reforms in sectors including health, education and agriculture.
Even as some exiled former allies have questioned the government’s economic performance and criticism of Mr Kagame’s authoritarian tactics has mounted, the World Bank’s support has continued.
In 2018, World Bank funding to Kigali more than doubled to a record $545m.
Yet a Financial Times analysis of government statistics has found that the data look to have been misrepresented on at least one occasion, casting doubt on both the strength of the proclaimed economic miracle and the integrity of Rwanda’s relationship with its biggest donor.
The Rwandan government says poverty has reduced progressively since 2001 in the country of 12m people.
But according to an FT analysis of survey data published by the Rwandan bureau of statistics, poverty increased during at least one important period — the run-up to a referendum in 2015 that allowed Mr Kagame to extend his then 15-year rule for up to another two decades.
An anonymous source told the paper that a UK-based consultancy, Oxford Policy Management, was hired to complete the poverty analysis but their result that poverty had increased by 6% was rejected by the Rwandan government.
“With the constitutional referendum approaching that December, officials were under pressure to show continued progress and there was no way an undesirable increase in poverty could be tolerated,” the unnamed source told the FT
Opposition politicians say the country’s poverty level is part of a much bigger deception over economic progress in which donors, keen to laud Rwanda as a success story, have become complicit.
“[The government is] trying to convey that we are developing so they can hide what is really going on,” says Diane Rwigara, who was jailed for 12 months after she challenged Mr Kagame for the presidency in 2017.
“When you come here as a visitor all is put in place to impress you, but the reality is well hidden. You have to live it to believe it.” A small number of academics first challenged Rwanda’s poverty statistics in 2015, leading the country to revise its analysis in 2016 and the World Bank to publish its own response last year.
The academics’ findings, some of which have been published by the Review of African Political Economy, are compelling, independent experts say, but have been drowned out by the strength of Rwanda and the World Bank’s comprehensive denials.
However, the FT analysis of the survey’s more than 14,000 data points and interviews with academics shows that rising prices for Rwandan families meant poverty most likely increased between 2010 and 2014.
Critics such as David Himbara, who was head of Mr Kagame’s strategy and policy unit until he fled the country in 2010 over what he says was his reluctance to massage official data, insist that poverty levels are just one of many manipulated figures in a regime where even statistics must toe the party line.
“Every number for Kagame matters whether it is politics or economics, and that is the way he convinces the donors to look away from his repression and rather concentrate on economic development,” says Mr Himbara, speaking from Canada, where he lives in self-imposed exile.
“[The donors] can look away from the authoritarian side because he promises to deliver on the economy, so he has to keep showing that the numbers are great.”
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