Review: Aiding Violence

Aiding Violence
Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda
Peter Uvin
West Hartford, Connecticut: Kumarian Press, 1998

Review Copyright © 2000 Garret Wilson — February 6, 2000 11:15 a.m.

After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that killed up to 1,000,000 people, there have unsurprisingly been many questions raised. What conditions caused the genocide? Why would ordinary citizens participate in killing former acquaintances and neighbors? What can be done to keep such atrocities from happening again?

Peter Uvin explored the activities of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and other aid groups to determine what impact, if any, they had on the setting that led to the 1994 activities in Rwanda. His conclusion, in Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda, consists of two main parts. First, he concludes that aid organizations ignored much of the political and social activities that were beginning to set the stage for the killings, and that the organizations should have done more to prevent these activities. Second, he claims that the development system itself contributed to some of the conditions that were forerunners to the event.

It's how large a role the development community played in setting the stage for genocide, or even if actions by the development community can be analyzed as a separate variable, that comprises the thorny issue here. If Uvin is attempting to say that development played a large role in setting conditions for the genocide, or that the genocide could even have been avoided had the development community played closer attention, he fails to prove his point. I emphasize analyzing Uvin's argument based on the data and logic he presents, and I therefore feel comfortable with this statement even though I've spent merely a few days in Rwanda, years after the genocide occurred. But perhaps that's not what Uvin is trying to say.

The content of Uvin's work does set out a fine list of items that NGOs should consider as they undertake their task of development (indeed, in even defining "development"), and in this the work can be considered a success. After reflecting on the work as a whole (and even reconsidering the title), it's not clear to me that Uvin is really attempting to place blame, although an initial examination of the book certainly caused me to think this at first. It's as if Uvin would have liked to be able to provide clear-cut answers and solutions for such a disastrous occurrence (wouldn't we all?), even if this meant placing the blame solely on the development community, but finding such easy answers hard to discover was instead forced to produce a manual merely for caution in future undertakings.

The finest section of the book is its overview of the history of Rwanda, of the Hutu and Tutsi, and of the "standard explanation" of the genocide: "the economic crisis and its impact on the poor, as well as on the state; the political challenges to the regime; the FPR invasion; the international pressure for democratization; the hate propaganda; and the militia and the role of the akazu therein..." This set of factors is explained well, and as presented by Uvin seem arguably valid. His argument, however, is that "this is not the whole story" (67).

The first part of Uvin's attempt to provide the "whole story" of the Rwandan genocide lies in illustrating several trends which should have provided clues that things were not as they should be, and that development groups (and foreign governments and anyone else) should have done more to prevent this flow of events. The formation of a system of racism was aided by white colonizers who "instituted a system of rigid ethnic classification, involving such 'modern scientific' methods as measuring nose and skull sizes and counting the number of cattle" (16-17). "The system of ethnic identity papers introduced by the Belgians was kept intact by the postcolonial governments (USAID 1992) and continued to exist until the 1994 genocide, greatly facilitating its execution" (35). "Alison des Forges... laments... that all foreign aid agencies accepted the continuation of the ethnic Ids and did not pressure the government to abandon them — not even in 1992, when it became clear that they were being employed to target Tutsi for harassment and extermination (des Forges 1994)" (37).

There are two conclusions that probably jump out to the reader from this summary: First, the points made are undoubtedly valid, and more could have been done to try to remedy wrongs and to try to prevent coming atrocities. The second conclusion is by no means rebutted by the text: it's always easy in hindsight to find problems and to present claims that different actions could have prevented unwelcome events.

But Uvin presses even beyond this initial charge of ignorance and apathy: "...even if we accept that the international community could not have foreseen the genocide that began on April 6, 1994, and thus could not have been expected to act to prevent its occurrence, the debate on its role and responsibility is not closed" (85). To provide a link between activities inherent to the development system and the genocide, Uvin discusses the concept of "structural violence," defined as a situation of unequal living conditions and social settings, even if physical violence did not exist. "Drawing on earlier work by John Galtung and others, I identify this condition as one of 'structural violence,' thus drawing attention to the fact that such structures and processes are violent because they needlessly and brutally limit people's physical and psychological capacities" (110).

While I would assume Galtung and others use the term to emphasize that inequality can be a form of violence, the use of a term like "structural violence" is quite convenient for Uvin in his argument by allowing him to link these conditions of inequality to the genocide because of the presence of the word "violence." "In many ways, then," Uvin says, "structural violence lays the groundwork for acute violence... In Rwanda in the 1990s, the interaction between structural violence and racism created the conditions necessary for genocidal manipulation by the elites to be successful" (138).

Uvin then goes on to attempt to link aid organizations to this concept of "structural violence," because many activities of development many times further the inequalities of a society; those who benefit from their activities are not necessarily those who need it most, and if those who benefit are those who are already the most well off, levels of inequality only rise. "It has often been said — and I largely concur — that the prime impact of development projects is to create jobs for the lucky few who manage to obtain them" (143). For example, "usually, one-third of all project costs goes to a handful of technical assistants, experts, and consultants" (144).

The issues involved here seem to be quite tricky — don't many projects anywhere in the world have large expenses such as buildings and administration? Uvin's point seems to be that, when such work takes place in a developing country such as Rwanda, these payments increase the disparity between classes and groups more than it does in other richer countries. The question is whether or not this is available; these expenses perhaps may need to be paid one way or another, even if great care should be taken to ensure that the effects of the project outweigh the inequalities increased by initial expenditures.

Nevertheless, Uvin raises some good points about the nature of development, considerations that should be taken seriously. He notes that too often "...the training and knowledge of those designing, managing, and evaluating development projects and programs are usually economic or technical, neglecting social and political factors. For almost all these people, issues of ethnicity are rather distasteful and incomprehensible — easier to ignore..." "...most experts, technical assistants, and evaluators have little, if any, in-depth knowledge of the social, political, and historical background of the countries they work in; training in these matters is not usually considered a major issue by the agencies that send them, nor is knowledge of the local language" (156).

Furthermore, " is often that which is most blatant that goes unnoticed, for it has acquired the quality of 'normalcy.' It is 'normal' that technical assistants maintain their home lifestyles while living in rural Africa.... It is also 'normal' that local counterparts interact with farmers in a manner that is condescending, unreliable, and unadapted...", and so on (157), explaining conditions that are apparently true too many times. This thought provoking list is certainly full of wise words, and should not be taken lightly. But what about the genocide?

Uvin's connection comes in part from assumption that violence can come from "societywide processes of unfulfilled (rising) expectations, frustrations, and aggression." "...there was certainly an element of rising expectations and associated frustration in Rwanda. It can be argued that the whole development enterprise, with its ideas of material progress, its well-paid employees (whatever the color of their skin) with their four-wheel-drive vehicles, villas, foreign travel, and hundreds of small, daily status symbols, created a permanent reminder of the life that could be but that never would be for the majority of the population" (210-211).

While it's certainly easy to make a connection between "structural violence" and the "acute violence" of the genocide based purely on the terminology used, it is at this point that any arguments indicting development projects seem to lose ground. Uvin has earlier in the work made clear that it is this "genocidal manipulation by the elites" that seems be the crucial factor in the genocide in Rwanda. He in fact admits as much: "...I believe that the same processes [of structural violence] are taking place in other African countries, leading to similar results. To be sure, the occurrence of genocide is likely to remain unique to Rwanda, as it displayed certain features that are not shared by most other African countries" (107).

Any argument that aid organizations contributed to the genocide by furthering structural violence seems to be from the outset attacking a straw man. Whether or not the development community assisted, knowingly or unknowingly, in created and/or furthering settings of inequality, Uvin himself makes it clear that these settings in themselves were not responsible for the genocide. The blame for the genocide cannot be laid even mostly at the feet of aid organizations or even structural violence.

Sometimes it's hard to tell exactly how much blame Uvin is placing on the development community. In an review of his conclusions on the causes of the genocide, Uvin doesn't list the NGOs directly. Instead, he finds three elements necessary for understanding: frustration from "structural violence," "strategies of manipulation by elites," and "widespread attachment to racist values in society." Specifically, it is the interaction of these processes "that allowed the genocide to occur in Rwanda" (223). The four other factors he mentions, including past violence and the absence of external constraints, "contributed to the genocide but did not cause it directly," although many of them "involve the international community" (223).

From this reasoning, international aid does not come to the top of the list of concerns; only indirectly, though secondary contributions to "structural violence", can Uvin bring aid into the picture. Uvin's intentions are even less clear at other points: while discussing whether aid impacted "structural violence," Uvin seems to get confused over whether he is claiming that the aid community aided violence "without intending to do so" or whether aid was, as he claims later in the same paragraph, "an active and willing partner in the construction of structural violence" (231).

A major fault of Uvin's analysis is that it seems to cite multiple varying reasons for the genocide, such as "...the economic crisis, the rise of political discontent, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR) invasion, the international pressure for democratization, the hate propaganda and the role of the akazu" (206), and roll these into one "standard explanation." Having placed all these factors into one entity, it is placed in the ring against development aid-related factors, the subject of this book. This seems quite artificial; if the economic crisis, the FPR invasion, or any of the other mentioned factors are all simply part of one explanation, why cannot whatever mistakes NGOs have made in attributing to inequalities simply become another factor in explaining the genocide instead of an opposing explanation? Uvin implicitly admits throughout the book that no one factor caused the genocide, and that it was the "interaction" of factors specific to Rwanda that must be considered (223).

The important question then, and one that the book seems to overplay, is "Could and should aid have acted differently" (228)? In the final analysis, Uvin again admits that although aid may have helped some forces leading to genocide, "...aid did not create these forces, nor, it must be admitted were they easily controllable" (229).

There were many factors that attributed to the violence, and Uvin does a good job of pointing many of these out. Many are to blame for mistakes made, not only before the genocide but during and after it as well. As just one example, "...the total absence of any condemnation during the first few days and even weeks of the genocide — including the infamous Clinton administration memo forbidding officials to use the term genocide — gave the interim government the clearest possible signal that it could continue the genocide without being bothered" (222).

Intervening has its dangers as well, and finding fault is not the same as discovering viable alternatives. Uvin admits that "The dangers in intervening from the outside in support of political goals such as democracy are perfectly illustrated in the case of Rwanda" (234). His criticism is that the system of aid organizations "...essentially said that, on the level of practice and discourse, the aid system did not care unduly about political and social trends in the country, not even if they involved government-sponsored racist attacks against Tutsi, many of whom were aid employees or partners" (237). Even if this is true, which seems reasonable enough, this can only be an exhortation for the aid system to try harder in the future to see and avoid such calamities; Uvin's 20/20 hindsight is still not sharp enough to foretell if such attempts will be or even could have been successful.