Rwanda: The Big Risk

Narcisse, a Hutu in his early twenties, went to work for the American organization the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in the summer of 1994. The mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by the Hutu-dominated regime in Rwanda had started in the spring of that year, and had ended only in July. After the forces of the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) routed the government army and the militias loyal to it and took over the country, they installed a new government made up of a coalition dominated by Tutsis from the RPF, most of whom had been in exile in Uganda, and including moderate Hutus who had survived the genocide.

The period following the genocide and the subsequent mass flight of more than two million Hutus into Tanzania, eastern Zaire, and Burundi was a lawless, confusing time. It was certainly not a moment when international humanitarian organizations were in any position to check on the backgrounds of local employees. International relief organizations, most of whose expatriate staff members do not speak the local languages in the countries in which they work or have much previous knowledge of the countries to which they have been assigned, hire local people as drivers and translators and to fill other low-level positions without knowing much about them.

In a place like Rwanda, the local staff members on average are paid one tenth of what expatriates earn, and they, in turn, usually earn ten or twenty times the salary of someone employed by a local rather than an international organization. It is a division of labor (and a distortion of the local economy) much regretted by expatriates and by local people alike. But no one has come up with a solution. Expatriate humanitarian workers are badly paid by Western standards, even if their salaries are magnificent by local ones. The organizations can’t afford to pay them at the same rates as their regular staff members, and they feel it is unfair to ask them to accept even lower wages. Those who run the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are well aware that the salaries they can offer tend to skim off talented local people whose services might be needed by the hard-pressed government, particularly in a society like Rwanda, where so many of the best-qualified people either were murdered or fled abroad during the killing in 1994. They argue that this is an unavoidable consequence, and the necessary price, of providing help that is desperately needed.

Narcisse soon became a part of the IRC’s effort in Kigali, admired by both his foreign and his local colleagues for his work as a translator and driver. Like most Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi alike, he preferred not to speak to foreigners about his experiences during the killing in the spring and early summer of 1994. That he had remained in Kigali after the RPF took over the city in early July of that year suggested to his co-workers that he had not been involved in the …

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