Harris School students meet with African leaders

Last December a dozen Harris School of Public Policy students had the rare opportunity to sit down with the presidents of Rwanda and Madagascar to discuss development strategies and assess the need for international aid in each nation.

In a Harris School exercise Tuesday, March 8, at Chicago’s Aon Corporation, the student group presented two memos, one for each country, with recommendations they would make to the U.S. government. They will share their analyses and recommendations with the leaders and state officials they met with while in Africa.

The students made the two-week trip to Africa with Senior Lecturer Charles Wheelan, who has led the Harris School’s annual International Policy Practicum course for the past six years. The course allows students to learn directly from government leaders, NGOs, and other policy practitioners around the world. Earlier trips have included visits to Cambodia, India, Brazil, Jordan, and Turkey.

Wheelan said the international trips also provide balance to the quantitative analysis students learn in the classroom. “Leadership is a qualitative virtue, and so it’s important to talk to leaders directly and take in the climate that they’ve created.”

This is the first year an IPP class focused on two countries, both chosen for their unique policy challenges. In Rwanda, students met with President Paul Kagame, among other policymakers, to learn about the role of government institutions as the country rebounds from its devastating 1994 genocide. In Madagascar, the group’s meetings included President Andry Rajoelina and examined the intersection of poverty and environmental policy in one of the world’s richest ecosystems.

“When you’re in a classroom, you’re getting information from academics who are doing really fancy regressions,” said second-year IPP student Susan Parker, “but when you’re in country, you’re meeting with people who are putting these things into practice.”

Studying Rwanda’s success

Entering a government compound in the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, requires passing through a well-oiled machine of bag checks, armed guards, metal detectors, and ID badges, said Parker and many of her classmates who made the trip. The new security measures are just one example of the country’s newfound efficiency and progress since an estimated 800,000 people were killed in 100 days during a civil war two decades ago. The person responsible for this transformation, Rwanda President Kagame, is arguably one of the most powerful men in Africa today. And for 40 minutes, IPP students got his undivided attention.

The group was particularly interested in his process of reestablishing order, security and governance in the country. Experts say economic growth is now palpable across Rwanda, internal reconciliation is well underway, and measures have been taken to protect the environment. Kagame’s government has banned plastic bags for environmental reasons, and members of his own cabinet have been arrested on corruption charges. At the same time, he is criticized by some in the West for the lack of free elections, free press, and other human rights in Rwanda, earning him the dichotomous reputation as a “benevolent dictator.”

“When he says something, it happens,” said second-year IPP student Nathan Wineinger, who is writing his thesis on the systems of checks and balances in Rwanda. “We met a lot of people who were either pro-Kagame or anti-Kagame, but when you go to the country and meet with its leaders, you realize it’s much more nuanced than what you’ve read in news reports.”

In their memo presentation, students recommended that international donors shift their support in Rwanda from specific project-based aid to broader sector funding, giving the country more power to invest in its economy as it sees fit. 

More needed in Madagascar

Since being accepted into the IPP course last May, Wineinger and his classmates have been soaking up as many articles, books, films, and guest lectures as possible to better understand the two countries. As part of their research, the group also visited the Field Museum’s fifth-floor laboratory to study the ecology in Madagascar.

While visiting Madagascar, they focused on the protection of its vast environmental resources, a serious problem due to widespread slash-and-burn deforestation practices that local residents use to claim property rights. “Until you’ve actually seen the billowing smoke and the denuded mountains, I don’t think you can have any appreciation for the magnitude of the destruction or the grinding poverty that’s driving it,” Wheelan recalls.

With the help and support of Ylias Akbaraly, a member of the Harris School Dean’s International Council, the group was able to sit down with President Andry Rajoelina, and ask him questions about the country’s ongoing development and its effects on the environment. The 36-year-old former disc jockey gained power after a military coup last year; the United States does not currently recognize his young government.

Because of Madagascar’s political status and its reputation for corruption, students suggested that the United States and other foreign governments focus their resources on incentivizing local communities in the country to protect old-growth forests instead of going through national channels.

“The feeling of political legitimacy was very different in the two places,” Wheelan said, reflecting on the meetings in Rwanda and Madagascar. “You’re never going to read an academic paper about charisma or anything like that, but what we saw when we met these two leaders is the profound importance of qualities we can’t measure.”