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How a Canadian organization is helping Rwanda back to health

Violette Uwamutara knew she had to help her homeland.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Violette Uwamutara had never set foot in Rwanda when she first saw images of the genocide broadcast on Canadian television in 1994.

She was an undergraduate student at Trent University at the time, but Rwanda was her homeland, the country her father had fled a generation earlier. As she watched the horrifying news develop, she knew immediately that she wanted to dedicate her life to rebuilding the country.

In 2010, after working at the Rwandan embassy in Washington, D.C., Ms. Uwamutara became country director for Rwanda at the Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT), a Canadian group that does development work focused on mentoring and technology – and on working quickly.

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"Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills and it's also the land of a thousand opportunities," she says. "With many organizations, you have to wait years for success. With DOT, it's months. You take people and then show them that, despite the hardships you've faced, you have it inside you to make it."

DOT, which has programs in 10 countries, trains local college and university graduates aged 21 to 29 as "interns" and then sends them on nine-month placements to run training programs for their peers, business owners and teachers. The interns are sent to their home communities so they are familiar with the local challenges. After their placements, they can get a job or go into business for themselves.

Developing the talent of the next generation is crucial to Rwanda's future, Ms. Uwamutara says. More than 50 per cent of the country's population of 11 million is under 25. Youth unemployment is high and rates of secondary-school enrolment are only around 25 per cent. These are the children of the genocide – some have been orphaned, some born into the chaos and instability that followed.

DOT Rwanda's goal is to get those young people either back to school, into a job, or to start their own business, and Ms. Uwamutara has found a willing partner in the government: Rwanda has made its regional information and communications training centres available for DOT's programs.

The ICT centres, of which there are at least two in every district of the country, are similar to digital classrooms equipped with computers, Ms. Uwamutara says. In districts without electricity, teachers use a mobile classroom on a bus.

The results, at least as they are measured by DOT, are impressive. The organization claims that 98 per cent of its interns (a total of 200 over the last three years) find employment shortly after their placement ends. Of the 30,000 people the interns have trained in Rwanda, roughly a quarter started their own business, 20 per cent found work and 30 per cent went on to further training, according to DOT figures.

The DOT trainees have benefited from a period of tremendous economic expansion. Rwanda has been something of a darling in the eyes of the West thanks to its steady 5-to-7-per-cent annual economic growth. President Paul Kagame has made it an explicit goal to push Rwanda into the ranks of middle-income countries by 2020.

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But its image was tarnished recently when a United Nations report accused the government of supporting a rebel group in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo known to recruit child soldiers. As well, the Rwandan government has been criticized for its authoritarian approach and for stifling political debate, according to Rwanda expert Susan Thomson, a professor at Colgate University.

"The debate among Rwanda scholars right now is can these economic gains be maintained in such a repressive political environment," Prof. Thomson says. "Rwanda says, 'We're the Singapore of Africa' and the international community says, 'But you have no middle class.' So there is a drive to promote a middle class, but it's a middle class that's politically loyal to the current government."

Navigating turbulent local waters is one of the main challenges of international development. DOT's Ottawa-based founder, Janet Longmore, says the key to her organization's success is understanding how to harness local talent to solve local problems.

"Our basic philosophy is all about local ownership and local solutions," Ms. Longmore says. "I really think that's our competitive advantage. We could go into any country now and within a year you would see the DOT operation up and running, locally owned, getting results and looking to scale up. We've got a process that works."

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About the Author
Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More


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