Kagame: Rwanda Committed To S&T Development

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Rwandan President Paul Kagame
[Photo by Colellaphoto.com for AAAS]

BOSTON–If you think you know Rwanda, challenged by poverty and linked with recent genocide in the public mind, consider this: 96 percent of its primary-school-age children receive a free education. More than 600,000 of its people are mobile phone subscribers. And by the year 2012, its government hopes to invest 5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on its science and technology capacity, surpassing similar spending by the United States, said Rwandan President Paul Kagame in a plenary address before the 2008 AAAS Annual Meeting.

In a moving speech detailing the Republic of Rwanda’s challenges and successes, Kagame was optimistic about the power of S&T development to lift the economic prospects of his country, saying, “we have been building from scratch, but making headway.” (Hear more in the Science podcast on the Kagame address.)

“What we seek to achieve in Rwanda and in Africa is what is taken for granted here — a continuous expansion of knowledge and innovation that leads to prosperity through a triangular relationship between government, business, and academia,” he added.

Until these three sectors can be integrated on a large scale, African economies will remain “trapped in the trading of raw materials and natural resources,” Kagame warned.

The challenges facing the Rwandan economy are formidable. According to the World Bank, more than 60 percent of the people in the most densely populated African country lived on less than a dollar a day in 2000. The country is still rebuilding from civil war and genocide in 1994 that killed 800,000 people and ravaged its workforce and institutions.

But the economy is recovering, thanks in part to significant gains in tourism and information and communication technology such as the mobile phone industry, which Kagame called “the leading wealth creator in our country.”

President Kagame and his ministers have determined to build the country’s science and technology capacity through massive support for education, spending nearly 25 percent of the national budget on education. Primary school and most years of secondary school are now free in Rwanda. Kagame has also devoted himself to rebuilding institutions of higher learning such as the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, reclaiming the institutions after their use as military training centers.

Born in October 1957 in Ruhango, Southern Province, Kagame fled Rwanda with his family in 1960 to escape ethnic pogroms sweeping the country. After 30 years in exile, he returned in 1990 to lead the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) until the end of the civil war in 1994. In 2000, he was unanimously elected President by the Transitional National Assembly, and three years later he became the first democratically-elected President of Rwanda.

Kagame was introduced before the plenary audience in Boston by AAAS President David Baltimore Baltimore plenary story, who visited Rwanda in October 2007 to meet with Kagame and several of the country’s science and technology leaders. [Read more about Baltimore's visit.] Kagame said he has instructed his ministers to work with AAAS to tap into the American network of scientists and educators that can help rebuild Rwandan institutions. He also hopes that the collaborations will be a “two-way endeavor,” where American researchers can work with Rwandans on the research opportunities evident in the country’s rich biodiversity, for example.

Although the social, economic and political progress of African nations remains uneven, “we must keep the steady course of using the powerful tools of science and technology. We have made a good start in Rwanda, but challenges clearly remain. I am certain that the AAAS has a role to play in this,” Kagame said.