Aiding Violence

By Peter Uvin (Kumarian Press, 1998)

The various governmental and nongovernmental organizations that practice international development work—USAID, the World Bank, the IMF, sundry UN organs—are often accused of seemingly contradictory things. One critic paints these organizations as deeply cynical, another as imperialist. Still another decries them as hopelessly naïve. But one criticism all sides repeat is that the organizations never seem to ask the hard questions about whether the work they’re doing is, well, working. Are they doing good? Are they doing harm?

This criticism has some validity to it. The debates within the field happen far from the public eye, and when something goes wrong, you don’t often hear anyone say they’re sorry in public. But now and again, you get a peek, a blazing exception. The best example of this I can think of is Peter Uvin’s —a bold, intensely critical, and moving book that still leaves me shaken years after having read it, which is really saying something for a book aimed at specialists in economic development and international affairs.

The popular conception of the Rwandan genocide is that it rose out of nothing: One minute, Rwanda was a relatively peaceful place; the next, it was a bloodbath. That is, of course, untrue, as dozens of books written about it since then can attest (see, in particular, , by Mahmood Mamdani). But there’s a reason that the popular conception persists, and some of it may have to do with the fact that, right up until the machetes came out, Rwanda was considered to be, as Uvin puts it, “a model of development in Africa.”

Uvin is a development specialist himself, who began working in Rwanda in 1991, three years before the genocide began. This fact is extremely important to the criticisms he makes in Aiding Violence, because they’re not condemnations; they’re excoriating self-inquiries of a variety that few people have the guts to muster ever, especially in print. As Uvin writes, while unrest roiled in Rwanda and at its borders and the pieces were falling into place for massacre,

almost none of the foreign experts living and working in Rwanda expected the genocide to occur or did anything to stop it from happening. Up to the last minute, thousands of technical assistants and foreign experts were building roads, extending credit, training farmers, protecting the environment, reorganizing ministries, advising finance officers, and delivering food aid, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year—the lion’s share of all government expenditures. For most of these people, up to the end, Rwanda was a well-developing country—facing serious development problems, but dealing with them much more effectively than were other countries.

This contradiction poses profound challenges for anyone who has ever worked with the development enterprise in Rwanda or in Africa in general; for me, it led to a long reflection process, of which this book is the result. What does development mean if a country that is seemingly succeeding so well at it can descend so rapidly into such tragedy? Why did those of us who worked there have no idea that this was coming?

Uvin—rightly, of course—lays the direct blame for the killing on those who perpetrated it. But he never lets himself or his colleagues off the hook:

The process of development and the international aid given to promote it interacted with the forces of exclusion, inequality, pauperization, racism, and oppression that laid the groundwork for the 1994 genocide. In countries such as Rwanda, where development aid provides such a large share of the financial and moral resources of government and civil society, development aid cannot help but play a crucial role in shaping the processes that lead to violence.

And that’s just the introduction. But the book isn’t simply critical; unlike development work’s more blunt detractors, Uvin isn’t trying to tear the organizations down. He’s trying to change the way they operate. By the time you’ve worked through his book—a nuanced and precise account of the way that the international development community related to Rwandan government and society before 1994—if you didn’t agree before, you’ll be nodding in complete agreement at his statement that

all development aid constitutes a form of political intervention … at all levels, from the central government to the local community. Ethnic and political amnesia does not make development aid and the processes it sets in motion apolitical; it just renders these processes invisible.

Uvin’s prescriptions (which he fleshed out in a second book, , in 2004) are then an example of policy writing at its best: In his plea “in favor of defining all development, and all development aid, in more holistic and political terms, at both the intellectual and the operational level” and the analysis around it, he sprints far beyond the way the debate is usually framed in popular discourse to a series of conclusions that are as smart as they are practical. And the good news is that it mattered. Uvin—now a dean and professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts—wrote a book that made waves throughout the world of international development and changed the way that aid organizations did their work.

Aiding Violence is thus a great book for nonspecialists who are interested in, and skeptical of, the efficacy of international development and genocide prevention efforts. Uvin’s criticisms are far more devastating than most of what you hear in the mainstream media, but they also offer a way out. Genocide is still with us, still , but Uvin takes his place beside who are not only telling us we should do more to stop it, but showing us how.

is an editor of the New Haven Review.