I have a young friend who comes from the African nation of Burundi. Not very long ago an immigration agent at Kennedy Airport looked at his passport and said, with obvious consternation, that she’d never heard of his country. “Are you sure it isn’t Burma?” she asked.
My friend felt rather offended, but put on his warmest smile and replied: “Well, it was Burundi yesterday when I left.”
Burundi is one of the poorest countries in Africa and also one of the smallest – roughly the size of Belgium, its self-serving colonial ruler from 1919 to 1962. Westerners didn’t assemble the country out of great chunks of disparate territory, as they did many other African nations. When the Europeans (first the Germans, then the Belgians) claimed Burundi in the late 19th century, it was already a coherent political entity, a kingdom that the colonials mistook for a feudal state. Burundi’s current boundaries very nearly conform to its ancient ones. It lies just south of the equator in East Central Africa along part of the crest of the Congo-Nile watershed. It is surrounded by countries with names that one hopes passport control officers would recognize – by Tanzania to the south and east, by the Democratic Republic of Congo across Lake Tanganikya to the west, and by Rwanda to the north. It’s a mostly hilly, landlocked, densely populated nation with dwindling forests but lovely rustic landscapes and an agrarian economy that exports excellent coffee and tea and not much else. To the extent that it is known internationally, it is known for its recent history of violence, which helped to incite the much more notorious violence that shattered Rwanda in 1994.
Burundi only recently emerged from more than a decade of ethnic civil war, a war fought between people classified as Hutus, who make up the majority of the population, and Tutsis, a numerically significant minority. The long and complex history of ethnicity in Burundi is, as scholars like to say, “contested,” and so is the precise composition of the population. Not everyone agrees that Burundi’s Hutus and Tutsis have ever differed enough even to be called ethnicities. In pre-colonial days, in any case, other social distinctions seem to have mattered more. But colonial and indigenous misrule, and decades of intermittent violence after independence, ensured that the Hutu-Tutsi divide became real and paramount. In October, 1993, a group of Tutsi soldiers assassinated Burundi’s newly elected president, the country’s first Hutu president. In the war that followed, the Tutsi government’s army and Hutu rebel militias fought to a stalemate. Hundreds of thousands of Burundians died, as many as 300,000, most of them civilians. The war ended, more or less, in 2004, thanks to the strenuous efforts of African and Western governments. In 2005 a new constitution was ratified. It provided for multi-ethnic government. The largest of the Hutu rebel groups won the ensuing elections, but by then that group had become a multi-ethnic political party, and the new president, a Hutu and former rebel leader, pledged an end to ethnic strife. Most significant, the police force and army were fully and equally integrated, Hutu and Tutsi, at all levels – no guarantee of lasting peace but a measure of security for the country’s roughly 9 million deeply impoverished and traumatized citizens.
Peter Uvin is the academic Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He has written extensively about conflict in East Central Africa. In a new book, Life After Violence: A People’s Story of Burundi, Uvin attempts to describe and analyze Burundian society in the aftermath of its long war. In the process, he takes on the larger issue of international aid – and offers, indirectly, a great deal of advice to foreigners who earn their livings trying to help countries like Burundi. I should acknowledge that I interviewed Uvin in the course of research for a book of my own, but I am indebted to him mainly for his previous writings, the reason I sought him out in the first place.
Uvin has a history of thinking about the ways in which the rich world intervenes in the affairs of poor and troubled nations. Early in his career he spent a great deal of time in Africa, especially in Burundi and Rwanda, working as a junior employee for various international aid organizations, evaluating and managing projects that were supposed to improve the lives of poor people in poor countries. He quit this work – in dismay if not disgust, one gathers from his introduction – and in 1998 published a book called Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda. I have read at least a dozen books about the Rwandan genocide. Aiding Violence is among the most convincing and unusual. Convincing because it describes not just the actions of elites in fostering the genocide but also the lives of ordinary Rwandans; that is, it begins to make palpable some of the reasons that hundreds of thousands killed their neighbors. And unusual in that it shows how the administration of foreign aid abetted, all unwittingly, Rwanda’s descent into mass violence.
The annals of foreign aid are full of stories of expensive and even harmful failures – reforestation projects that have led to further deforestation in places like Haiti, projects supposedly aimed at fostering democracy that have propped up brutal dictatorships in places like the Congo. Uvin was hardly the first to document this sort of thing, but Aiding Violence and a subsequent paper of his caused a stir. Development aid, aid that is supposed to help countries like Burundi improve their economies and institutions, had mostly ignored issues of violence. Partly thanks to Uvin’s work, people who think about and administer foreign assistance began to look for ways to extend the “development enterprise” into the resolution and prevention of conflict – to make aid into an instrument of peace.
In the introduction to his new book, Uvin points out that people like himself, people who come up with theories about how foreign aid should be dispensed, live utterly different lives from the people those ideas are supposed to serve. In 2006, he went to Burundi for about a year, hoping in part to find out if the hypotheses of privileged experts had any relevance to the lives of “stunning deprivation” that most Burundians now endure. He chose a team of native-speaking interpreters and asked Burundians a set of twenty-one questions, deliberately open-ended questions, such as what “peace” meant to them. He interviewed mainly young people, Burundians between the ages of 15 and 30: the “young adults who came of age during the war,” who “now represent the future of Burundi.” He focused especially on young men, because they are the usual suspects in theories about the causes of violence. But his team also interviewed many women and elderly and also a handful of relatively wealthy Burundians. Over eight months, Uvin solicited the views of 388 Burundians, a mixture of Hutus and Tutsis living in various parts of the country – in the capital city, in rural towns, in refugee camps.
Some of the results appear in tables, but not a clutter of those. The voices of “ordinary” Burundians lie at the heart of his book, Uvin asserts, and the claim seems just. The voices come to us in direct quotations, usually brief and to the point. Mainly, they are synthesized into a series of complex meditations on subjects such as peace and justice and government and the changing roles of men and women in Burundian society. In every case, Uvin compares the Burundians’ ideas and opinions to the assumptions that guide international aid.
The central assumption has to be that aid helps ordinary citizens. Uvin offers high praise for the international diplomatic efforts that ended the civil war. But efforts since then have been less impressive. In 2006, foreign aid to Burundi came to about 300 million dollars a year, fully 39 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. But most of the money was going, Uvin writes, to “experts, consultants, managers.” Only a few of the people Uvin and his team interviewed had received direct assistance, all of it minor. Most had seen nothing at all, and all assumed, not always incorrectly, that politicians routinely stole the money. Uvin acknowledges the small successes of some aid programs. On the whole, he takes a constructive tone. He seems less interested in scolding the administrators of aid than in pointing out their errors and in suggesting improvements. This lends a feeling of sincerity to his occasional outbursts:
How many hundreds of times have I heard that argument – the poor depend on our aid; helping the poor is dangerous – expressed by high-earning intellectuals, local and foreign. Aid dependency, it seems, acts as an explanation for every negative social phenomenon. It is also condescending nonsense, spouted by people who would not survive for a week the life conditions of those they talk about.
Once in a while, Uvin writes a graceless phrase: “resistance created by a combination of rural and gendered values,” “deeper and widespread ideological support basis.” In one memorable passage, we encounter a pair of war-weary ex-soldiers made over into policemen, and we get a glimpse of the fear they inspire in the Burundians accompanying Uvin. I wish he had written a few more scenes of that sort. In general, I felt that he might have tried a little more often to embody the voices of Burundians and to render the settings of his interviews. But all my reservations fell away in the face of this book’s virtues. Some of the best histories of Rwanda and Burundi seem infected with tendentiousness, scholars taking the side of Hutus or of Tutsis. Uvin, by contrast, seems completely even-handed. He seems earnestly to want to understand all sides. One of the pleasures of this book is its evident authority. You sense that Uvin has learned more about the views of Burundians than any one Burundian can know. And he has an intimate knowledge of the theories and practices of his own tribe. As I read, I often had the feeling that I was listening to Uvin think. The best of the discourses felt like narratives, so that what surprises Uvin ended up surprising me.
Theory almost invariably supports the establishment of truth commissions and trials after wars like Burundi’s. This makes apparent sense. Decades of impunity, especially for political killings, helped to cause Burundi’s decade of extreme violence. Most of the cross-section of Burundians Uvin interviewed spoke of wanting to discuss the war with people who were on the other side. But they did not want a formal accounting. Many feared that trials and commissions would break the fragile peace. Some no doubt were afraid they might themselves be put on trial. Mainly, they felt that formal attempts at justice would turn out to be unjust. This takes some explaining. In a discourse on “the micro-politics of violence” in Burundi, Uvin describes the mechanisms that brought conflict among the powerful out into the villages. He writes: “In societies where the rule of law is close to non-existent and security forces are neither effective nor trusted, small groups of people willing to use violence can create enough chaos and fear to force everyone into making violent choices.” Uvin’s interviewees understood this. They blamed the war on national politicians and local elites. They felt that citizens who had committed violent acts should not be tried, because most of them had acted out of fear. As my own Burundian friend once put it, speaking of his countrymen, “They were not themselves. They were something else.” (In a similiar vein, we learn that Burundi is a moralistic society, and yet most of the people Uvin interviewed did not blame the women who had turned to prostitution).
Uvin allows that it was mostly young men and “not grannies” who served as “the shock troops” in Burundi’s war. But current theory overstates the role of “frustrated masculinity:”
In the literature on young men in Africa, it has become so common to describe them only as angry, frustrated, drifting into mindless violence – potential rapists and killers, all of them, it seems. In some theories, their very existence is taken as an indicator of violence, regardless of their personalities, beliefs, dreams. And yet, when you talk with them, how different they are from these simplistic images – how filled with perseverance and hope, ready to take on life and all that it may bring.
Less than three percent of young men joined an armed movement during the war. The Burundian ideal of masculinity rests on responsibility, on taking care of one’s own family, not on violence. What young men want is education and opportunities and, above all, jobs. Creating jobs ought to rank high on any list of projects for developing Burundi’s economy. But, Uvin warns, it would be foolish to imagine foreign agencies providing enough help to make job-creation programs a means of preventing war or securing peace. Better, he writes, to use the available resources on specific groups of young men, such as the several thousand former child soldiers living in destitution in the capital city, who could easily become recruits for those with an interest in renewing the violence.
The people Uvin interviewed all talked in one way or another about their hopes for good government, but none spoke in a way that fits the assumptions of aid agencies, which invariably try to implant western-style institutions of democracy and usually end up creating hollow shells. Burundians, it seems, want security and jobs far more than elections. To Uvin, they expressed hopes, not for better institutions, but for “better people,” for something like the pre-colonial system of bashingantahe, under which local justice was meted out by individuals universally recognized by their peers for virtue and fair-mindedness.
Uvin doesn’t lay out a plan for a home-grown system of government in Burundi, but he does suggest some places where the quest for one might begin. He also identifies types of projects that ought to be abandoned, such as the standard programs for “decentralization,” which invariably have ended up enhancing the centralized power of elites. In defining peace, every Burundian he interviewed spoke about freedom from criminal violence and robbery. It follows that aid agencies should focus on good policing, “a tall order in any society,” Uvin allows.
In Burundi, the new government and the internationalists have so far focused on rural areas, to the exclusion of the urban. This has been a welcome development, because rural interests had long been neglected, but it is a risky strategy for preserving the peace. The rural and the urban are intimately connected in Burundi, and the city contains the largest numbers of demobilized soldiers and of “political entrepreneurs with deep pockets.” And it is in cities where the frustrations of the poor grow keenest, fed by the cars and clothes and houses of the rich – practically everyone Uvin talked to spoke bitterly about those mansions.
Practically everyone he spoke to also complained about corruption, including especially the theft of foreign aid. A generic complaint in many cases, Uvin surmises, but accurate enough. Corruption is important to curtail, if only to curb the injured feelings of ordinary citizens: “The general corruption and social exclusion (including through unequal access to higher education) offend them, make them cynical, and make violence easier to justify or to accept.” Attempting to curb corruption, foreign aid agencies usually put one of their own in charge of the money being dispensed. But most foreigners can’t begin to figure out how aid money gets stolen in Burundi. If they wanted to stop corruption, aid agencies would have to make basic changes; above all, they would have to find ways of creating real trust between themselves and their local employees.
Many of Uvin’s discourses end in that way, with advice for the earnestly engaged foreign aid purveyor, advice that, as Uvin allows, would be difficult to follow. Life after Violence is a hopeful book, but far from Panglossian. At the very least, it makes a strong case for investigations like the one it is based on. In Burundi, Uvin tells us, the oppression of women is old and legion. Now, in the aftermath of the long war, some women have started to break out of their narrow traditional roles. At the end of his discourse on these beginnings of change, Uvin writes, “They can be built on, but for that they need to be recognized.”
Every page of Uvin’s book argues for efforts to achieve that kind of recognition. One can imagine objections: it may be that in countries as poor as Burundi the provision of goods and services ought to have first claim on foreign aid; in emergencies, some would no doubt say, a people’s opinions and hopes and cultural inclinations matter less than their hunger. But if you want to launch a long-term effort to improve a society, you ought to know something about it. This would seem elementary, and yet undertakings like Uvin’s are rare – rare even though interviewing a carefully selected range of Burundians couldn’t have cost more than a fraction of what foreign aid agencies routinely spend on SUVs for their own use.
Burundians were not consulted when Europeans claimed their country more than a century ago, and they haven’t been consulted much since. In this fascinating and potentially useful book, they have for once been granted that fundamental human right: they have been allowed to speak their minds.
Tracy Kidder is the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains. His new book, Strength In What Remains, is set partly in Burundi, and will be published in August, 2009. This is a longer version of a review that appeared in the Washington Post. (Republished with permission.)