Defend Truth


Constitutionalism, Civil Rights and Philanthropy


Shelagh Gastrow provides advisory services to the philanthropy sector, higher education advancement and non-profit sustainability. She works with individuals and families on how to integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and universities through programmes to develop their financial sustainability whilst promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work has gained public recognition locally and internationally.

Can one imagine if Barak Obama announced that he was going for a third term, despite a constitution that clearly disallows this? There is no reason why Obama wouldn’t get the endorsement of the Democrats, but it is an unthinkable proposition. Why then does an American philanthropist, Howard Buffet, endorse a third term for President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, when he was clearly ineligible for another term?

The Rwandan constitution clearly stated that under no circumstances should a person hold the office of president for more than two terms and this is what the Rwandan government is changing (with Buffet’s support).

Buffet has invested heavily in Rwanda, in the area of agriculture in particular, and believes that Rwanda is one of Africa’s great successes. Taking into account the disastrous genocide in 1994 and the need to reconstruct a devastated country in the post-genocide period, the economic turnaround has truly been amazing. During this time there haven’t been any major outbreaks of ethnic violence and the country’s economy has grown in leaps and bounds. There have been huge improvements in income, education and health.

However, this has come with a frightening backdrop of suppression and dictatorship. People who differ with Kagame have landed up in jail or been forced to leave Rwanda. Some have mysteriously been assassinated and others have disappeared. There is no debate in the country and journalists have to toe the line.

In effect, opposition is not tolerated, within the ruling elite or outside, and therefore there is no possibility of succession. There is plenty of evidence of Kagame’s authoritarian rule along with human rights abuses, both in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Conge (DRC). The long-standing repression since he took power has removed all traces of political diversity or civil society organisations that might have had a tempering effect. Kagame’s coyness about taking a third term because of the will of the people is a smokescreen. There are no voices opposing a third term because they have all been pushed out of existence.

Philanthropic entities, such as private foundations, have poured money into Rwanda. First, as the need for reconstruction was evident, but subsequently because of its remarkable economic progress. It has become one of the most favoured countries in Africa for philanthropic investment – everyone who is anyone has been to Kigali!

The list of donors includes a real “Who’s Who” of international philanthropy including the Bloomberg Philanthropies; the Rockefeller Foundation, the Goldman Sachs Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And of course in the crowd has been Bill Clinton, leveraging funding to support Rwandan projects. Much of this focused on the Sustainable Development Goals such as maternal health, poverty, hunger, education and gender equality, but we should be asking the question – would they also support Kagame’s third term as Howard Buffet has indicated?

If his view is a reflection of the thinking of international philanthropy, how does philanthropy, with its alleged values of altruism and “doing good”, focus only on the economic indicators to the detriment of freedom and civil and political rights? Has philanthropy lost its core values in the pressure for business and economic outcomes which are often only based on quantifiable outcomes, rather than qualitative and complex issues relating to human rights and democracy? A view of the website Democracy in Rwanda Now provides lists of people prohibited from entering Rwanda; Rwandan cases referred to the African Human Rights Court and other details on how civil and political rights are abused in the country.

To quote the Gates Foundation:From poverty to health, to education, our areas of focus offer the opportunity to dramatically improve the quality of life for billions of people.” The focus on quality of life in the abstract is an interesting approach from an important philanthro-capitalist. The Gates Foundation website talks a lot about results, but it doesn’t talk much about values. Undertaking philanthropy in such a paradigm means doing “good” or improving lives in a material way without adding to the quality of life that freedom, democracy or civil rights bring. So I could be educated, healthy and entrepreneurial as long as I shut up and let the powers that be run some kind of benevolent dictatorship.

When endorsing Kagame for his third term as president, Howard Buffet referred to the levels of risk he, as a philanthropist, was prepared to take, or not take. Buffet has made some incredible investments in the region and has certainly helped to provide many remarkable life opportunities in a range of communities.

It is such a pity that this extraordinary work can be undermined by his view that any possible successor to Kagame was high risk for him as a philanthropist. He wants everything to stay the same. Good economic growth, lack of corruption (although this is now questionable as there was evidence in the Panama Papers of some Rwandan involvement) and progress in the sustainable development goals are his objectives and Kagame is the man to deliver on these.

Buffet wasn’t taking any chances that might impact on this “stability” and his relationship with the Rwandan president. He didn’t want to take any chances that the personal freedoms of Rwandans might improve the situation. It seems that Buffet is supporting Kagame for president through to 2034 which is what the changes to the constitution will now permit.

The irony is that Big Man leadership always leads to instability as people will eventually push back as a lack of civil rights and free thinking becomes intolerable. Rather than endorsing further presidential terms, by now philanthropy should have encouraged succession and open elections. Authoritarianism always leads to revolution, even if it takes years to get there. Not exactly what philanthropy should have in mind. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.