From Downing Street to Kigali

Long before he resigned as Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair demonstrated an earnest commitment to promoting stability and development south of the Sahara. In May 2000, Britain launched Operation Palliser in response to an escalating conflict in Sierra Leone.  Though only mandated to protect non-combatants, the presence of British forces stabilized the country and hastened the end of the civil war.  Blair’s willingness to deploy troops to a country with little strategic significance to Britain reflected his government’s belief in “foreign policy with an ethical dimension.”  The Prime Minister’s response to the crisis in Sierra Leone represents a larger, more personal commitment he has to Africa.

In spring 2004, Blair established the Commission for Africa. Comprised of international experts including nine Africans, the commission published a report in 2005 called Our Common Interest. The report called for an all-hands-on-deck strategy for creating a prosperous Africa. Many of the recommendations were promptly adopted by the G8 when they met in Gleneagles in July of 2005. To see out the agenda, the Africa Progress Panel was formed in 2007, with Blair among its eleven members.

Since leaving office, Tony Blair has prioritized the African continent’s development with a sharpening focus on Rwanda. The Guardian quoted his approach to Africa in 2010, “There is a clear sense by this generation of African leaders that the future of Africa is in their hands and they’re not interested in a debate about the colonial past,” he said. “They’re very much eager to get their countries sorted out. They’re perfectly willing to listen and learn from the outside. They’re also keen on bringing in quality private sector investment and that is the way you build a country.” Blair’s statement echoes President Paul Kagame’s own sentiments expressed to Time in 2007, “We can make a difference. Rwanda can develop, can rebuild itself, can build a totally new nation from the one we experienced in the past.”

Though President Kagame and Tony Blair forged a close relationship while Blair was still Prime Minister, the friendship has deepened since Blair has been able to work more closely with Kagame’s government.  In 2008, Blair announced that he would begin working as an unpaid advisor to Kagame. In line with Rwanda’s development strategy, built around improving governance and attracting private investment to lessen the nation’s dependency on aid, Blair’s role is to attract investment and promote effective policies and efficiency in government.

To carry out his larger post-PM Africa agenda, Blair established the African Governance Initiative (AGI). Through the initiative, Blair and his officials work closely with African governments—Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda—to organically build capacity and cultivate sustainable private sector development. Through AGI a team of experts entered Rwanda in July 2008 for a 12-month stint to assist critical government institutions, including the Office of the President, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Rwanda Development Board and the Capacity Building Fund. Blair was careful to explain in a 2009 Kigali press briefing that his approach is different from many past initiatives, noting, “Our consultancy is not to tell the people of Rwanda what to do, but to help get done what the president wants.”

Tony Blair’s courtship with Rwanda is characteristic of Kagame’s plan for Rwanda’s development. Through relationships with high-powered individuals, the country’s average economic growth of 7 percent a year has been matched by major improvements in social indicators like health, where child mortality has halved since the 1990s. Rwanda’s prospects for development look promising. If nothing else, Tony Blair has helped lionize a previously marginalized marketplace.