One evening, back in 2010, I found myself stuck in Dar es Salaam’s soul-destroying evening traffic. I was trapped on Ocean Road, which leads from the ferries crossing the harbour past the presidential grounds. Often clogged with government workers and ex-pats trying to escape to the peninsula and beyond, the local street sellers have long-since adapted to this particular group, often selling international magazines (the Economist!) and informational maps and posters. It is here that I picked up my 2010 African Leaders Calendar poster, which devotes 90% of its space to African heads of state and 10% to anything calendar related.

I never put the poster up – it always sat on a shelf behind my desk in the department. It started seeming terribly out of date after the Arab spring and the second Ivorian civil war, so I started crossing presidents off when they were no longer in office. Not as part of some macabre hit list, but just to keep track of who had left. Out of the 56 countries represented, about 12 heads-of-state are no longer in power. The reasons for an X are myriad – failed re-elections, retirements, untimely deaths, revolutions and coups. Not always, but often, an X represents a shift for the better – or at the very least change.

Today I crossed off Professor John Evans Atta Mills, president of Ghana, who died yesterday. It’s not totally clear what illness Mills died of, possibly a complication of his throat cancer. I’ve written before of the tendency for African president to unexpectedly fall off their perches, felled by common ailments of the elderly such as cancer or strokes.

Two and a half years have seen an attrition of about 20%s. How long until that number hits 100%? At the top of the poster sit two of the stalwarts: Museveni and Kagame. I fear it will be quite some time before this calendar is finished.

By the way, if anyone can get their hands on either the 2011 or 2012 posters, let me know.

Pulling the Strings

Mind control is harder than finding a doorway behind a filing cabinet.

Paul Collier is pimping his War, Guns and Votes idea of creating rules under which the international community will tacitly support the use of military coup as a method of achieving political change again, this time in the context of the Ivory Coast. He says:

In much of Africa, the national army is the force most feared by presidents. Leaders go to considerable lengths to keep the army happy, but coups are still common. Because neither African governments nor the international community want to encourage coups, they have taken the line that the military should simply stay out of politics at all costs. This is understandable, but misguided: it’s better to set guidelines as to the very limited circumstances under which the ousting of an incumbent ruler would be legitimate.

His argument is essentially that this could work directly (by the army forcing Gbagbo out) or indirectly (the threat of being forced out, coupled with international pariah status and frozen bank accounts induce Gbagbo to leave power voluntarily).

His ideas are interesting, of course, but it seems to me that they depend on an assumption that either outsiders can control the coup leaders, or that they will operate in a benign manner – deposing Gbagbo and returning the country to democracy either out of the goodness of their hearts or out of fear of further coups. I’m dubious. History is littered with examples of where external powers have encouraged or supported an alternative to a bad leader, only to watch in horror as their role as Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster far beyond control.

Armies tend to be run and staffed by people who believe in strict hierarchy, discipline and autocratic models of leadership. I would imagine that they would therefore be just as prone to undemocratic behaviour as the leaders they depose. And once in power, won’t they be tempted by the endless possibilities to line their own pockets or to provide patronage to whatever groups support them? Are they less likely to be corrupted by power, even absolute power? I doubt this.

Direct military intervention has problems as well, of course, as does leaving things for an internal solution. I’m not sure which approach is best. All seem distinctly unsatisfactory.

The Twelve Days of Christmas (Aid Edition)™

A repost from last year – but a worthy one (I think):

On the twelfth day of Christmas my donors gave to me

twelve delayed disbursements!

eleven sketchy studies

ten consultants calling

nine economists arguing

eight mission meetings

seven worthless workshops

six gender trainings

five RCTs!

four 4x4s

three acronyms

two empty schools

and a lecture on M&E!

On sale now.

The Value of Conflict

Sometimes a good fight is the only way forward.

In the wake of Zanzibar’s recent elections, a friend and I had an argument about the proposed form of the new Government. The two main parties had agreed before the event to create a Government of National Unity, a structure that normally exists only when one party is unable to form a workable Government on its own or (as in the case of Zimbabwe) to forestall serious political conflict. As it happened, the results were such that the incumbent party, CCM, took the Presidency against a stiff challenge from CUF by a margin of a single percentage point – 50.1% to 49.1%. The two parties also divided the Parliamentary seats and representation in the House of Parliament between themselves.

Just to make the point starkly: between them, the two parties accounted for 99.2% of the votes cast for the Presidency, and together account for 100% of the Houses of Representatives and Parliament.

This state of affairs led to the aforementioned argument. My position was that this new Government of National Unity makes a mockery of the democratic system by removing every last vestige of accountability from the political system for the next five years, essentially installing a dictatorship by coalition. The biggest bone of contention for me is that there is literally no opposition at all. The losing Presidential candidate is to be installed as a Vice President and is thus intimately vested in the success and legitimacy of the Government; the Cabinet will involve senior figures from both parties; the ‘Government’ line will now encompass every single member of Parliament and people’s representative. In other words, in the organs of state, there is no-one who by function serves to question the actions of Government.

My friend, a colleague, took a different approach. He argued that the Government of National Unity is a step forward because it heightens the democratic representation of the Government in two major ways. Firstly, the unity Government was a proposal that was put to referendum and carried with a 70% positive vote. Secondly, it also provides a voice to the close to 50% of the population that has traditionally voted for the opposition but has never seen them enter Government (usually due to the underhand flaunting of democratic electoral norms). He pointed out that unity or coalition Governments existed in many other countries, and may have drawbacks, but could not be said to be undemocratic. Secondarily, though an ancillary point, he argued that the historical workings of opposition politics in Zanzibar were incredibly weak: when it has had the chance to ask searching questions of the incumbent Government, the opposition in Zanzibar has never done so. It has never used its role in Parliament to provide scrutiny of the actions of the Government. In this he’s surely correct.

I think both positions have merit, but the reason this concerns me so much is that the value in the democratic system lies only partly in representation. In virtually every country in the world the ‘representativeness’ of Government could be enhanced by coalition even when the ruling party has an absolute majority, since it gives all those who voted for losing or unrepresented parties a more direct line into Government. This doesn’t happen is because democratic systems of Government have proven successful because of the conflict they engender through the process of opposition and accountability. Decisions made by a Government are criticised, publicly scrutinised in Parliament and questioned before voting takes place. When a Government has an absolute majority this accountability may not prevent an action being taken, but it does ensure that the action is scrutinized first. This is one of the most valuable aspects of a democratic system – it promotes transparency, critical thinking and crucially, gives the Government a hard ride every time it tries to take a potentially important decision.

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Observations on Election Day

by Carmine Paolo De Salvo

The big day started with voters being greeted by heavy rain as they arrived at the polling stations in and around Stone Town. I did some ‘unofficial observation’ (just to satisfy my own curiosity) around 11am, when the polling stations had already been open for about 4 hours, initially visiting a couple of polling stations close to my place: the Karume College in Mbweni and a school in Kiembe Samaki. Those areas are very close to each other and both are characterized as CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the incumbent party) strongholds, since government officials and their families and friends constitute most of the electoral body in these parts.

A list of pictures of registered voters was well visible outside each polling station and made it easier for everyone to find her/his respective voting room. In both polling stations voters’ queues were quite long and many voters, especially women, had decided to sit down outside their respective rooms to wait for their turn to express their preferences. Military forces and police officers where present in each polling station, but there didn’t appear to be any tension or animosity, and indeed they were actually very obliging to me. They let me in and said there was no problem if I wanted to take some pictures (I was dressed as no more than a random tourist and had no government identification document whatsoever. I spoke Swahili to them though and here in Zanzibar Swahili speakers get a better treatment in different circumstances).

Voting operations did not seem to be very quick, maybe because every voter had to fill and fold five different ballot papers (for the President of Zanzibar, President of Tanzania, Zanzibar House of Representatives, Tanzanian Parliament and Local Council). In any case, the whole atmosphere was peaceful and relaxed.

I then moved on to town, which is usually a CUF (Civic United Front, the opposition) stronghold. I had a look at the polling station close to the Ministry where I work and there, too the situation looked tranquil. From there, accompanied by a friend of mine working as a Temco (Tanzania Election Monitoring Committee) observer, I went on to visit some of the more economically deprived areas around town.

We visited three different polling stations in the vicinities of the Kariakoo and Amani areas and the scenes were very similar to the ones that I have already described. These areas are also supposed to be more CCM-inclined. We arrived there around noon and the afflux of people was clearly decreasing (people here tend to go to vote early, as they get up very early as well). The presence of military forces was heavier in these last polling stations, but again incident-free. In one of the polling stations we noticed some a shortage of ballot papers (but just for the Tanzanian Parliament). This clearly showed at least some serious mismanagement. As far as I could understand from some Temco observers, vote counting will be suspended for that constituency and voters will be given the opportunity to vote on another date. But it is important to underline that these are just rumours that I heard and I can’t provide any official confirmation.

Such was my experience of Zanzibari elections. To be honest, my impressions were moderately positive. Of course, problems can still occur, especially when the votes are counted and results announced. I cannot predict what will happen in the next hours, but I am pleased to have witnessed what seemed to be a decent enough democratic exercise. So far, at least.

Pigani kura, msipige vita!

Today is the last day of campaigning before Tanzania and Zanzibar go to the polls to elect a new Government. Elections in Zanzibar are extremely close-fought events, though you wouldn’t guess it to look at the results over the last forty years. The ruling party, CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, The Party of the Revolution in Swahili), has held power ever since independence. The main opposition party, CUF (Civic United Front) has called foul on recent election results, and even refused to recognise the current Government due to allegations of vote rigging in 2005, a state of affairs that persisted until the two parties recently agreed to a Government of National Unity regardless of the results of the forthcoming elections. Given this fraught political relationship, the elections have been prone to violence in the past: in some cases large scale as occurred in 2005, particularly in Pemba, the CUF stronghold.

Hopes are high this year that the violence that has characterised previous elections will be avoided. CUF supporters recognise that for once, whatever happens, they will have a voice in Government thanks to the Unity Government. While this won’t eliminate their grievances overnight, it will appease them significantly if they lose another contested decision. One friend of mine summarised it as ‘tutapiga kura tu, hatupigi vita!’ – meaning ‘we will vote only; we are not waging war’. It’s a quirk of the Swahili language that to vote is kupiga kura while to make war is kupiga vita.

That said, in the last week, tension has ratcheted up. What had been a relatively subdued campaign has burst into life in the last few days. Virtually every Zanzibari is decked out in the green and yellow of CCM or the white, blue and red of CUF. Today, there are two major rallies taking place. I drove past the scene of the CUF rally this morning and the adjective that most came to my mind was volume: there were tens of thousands of participants, all making the most unimaginable noise. It wasn’t unpleasant, mind: a mixture of political sloganeering, joyous singing, beating of ngoma drums and the bleating of car horns. CCM will be holding its own rally this afternoon, and I’ve no doubt it will be similarly colourful.

Seeing such big, volatile groups surrounded by trigger happy military officers and police is a cause of concern: the army is shipped over from Mainland Tanzania, has a political affinity to the ruling party (CCM in both Tanzania and Zanzibar) and no family ties to the demonstrators – it doesn’t encourage restraint on either side. The groups of different supporters have started minor confrontations recently as well – though most of the time it has so far amounted to a few slogans or mild insults hurled at a passing truck full of political opponents.

In any case, fears of violence aren’t high for election day. The day results are announced may be a different matter, however. As I said before, CUF are likely to accept the results with something approaching equanimity since any outcomes affords them a greater political voice than they have ever enjoyed before. CCM, on the other hand, might react differently. The word in the back streets is that the rank and file of the party are far from happy that their leadership has agreed to the unity Government, and conspiracy theories abound as to the reasoning behind it – most relating to senior political figures’ desire to protect their estates. If they win the election, this probably won’t be an issue – they’ll have the President and bragging rights. If, however, CUF win for the first time, we might see some trouble.

This might happen, too. From what I gather, the voter registration process eventually completed in a relatively even-handed way. Voter registration is one of the main ways in which election rigging can occur, so this is a good sign. What’s more, the CUF leaders have responded to the good-natured joshing of a friend of mine who knows some of them with unusual confidence. Being told ‘hamtashinda safiri hii, tena!’ (‘you won’t win this time, again!’) their response has been an unusually calm ‘hujui. Wengi wamebadilika tangu 2005’ (‘you don’t know. Many have changed since 2005’).

We’ll see, though – tomorrow should be interesting. I’ll be following things via text updates from some friends doing the election monitoring and observation. I’m hopeful of a peaceful time. I’ve stocked up on wine, food and dvds, though, just in case things kick off.

Update: The Zanzibar Untold twitter feed is posting really interesting updates on rumours of electoral malpractice. It all seems to be hearsay thus far, but very interesting nonetheless.

New Political Strategies in East Africa

The future of political recruitment?

New media is all the rage. Tanzania’s political class has been pretty excited over the last week or two by the formation of a new political party, CCJ (the name stands for Chama Cha Jamii, or Party of Society). There are a number of interesting things about this event, but one of wider interest beyond the confines of Tanzanian political discourse is their use of an innovative way of registering new party members, normally poaching them from other parties: text messaging and internet registration. The Swahili daily Nipashe ran an article about this a few days ago which I’ve only just noticed now, under the headline ‘CCJ Yazidi Kujitanua Kisiasa’ (‘CCJ are Growing and Widening Themselves Politically’). It writes:

“This strategy, unprecedented in the history of the whole of East Africa, relates to the use of news and communications technology [ICT] … as the service which allows citizens to join the party by electronic means wherever they are…”

(This and the rest of this piece is based on my translation of two pieces in Nipashe in Swahili – Swahili speaking readers can drop me an e-mail or a comment and I’ll transcribe the interesting bits so they can read in the original language).

How do they do it? Quite simple, really: mobile phones. Prospective members send a text to the number 15337 including the word ‘CCJ’, then their exact name, a star, their address, a star, their state, a star and their area. After three weeks, a registration card will be sent to the address listed. In the most amazing (and selfless) part, Richard Kiyabo, the chairman of the party in question, has said they are ready to provide technical support to other parties to teach them how to use the same system of registration.

This is a great idea, given the size of Tanzania. To sign up people in the villages and fields would require a huge investment in time either from the party (sending out activists far from the towns) or from the potential members (traveling long distances to register). Mobile phone use is very widespread here these days, and the great thing is you can just borrow someone else’s mobile to register yourself. CCJ are just a few weeks old, and this recruitment strategy is the central prong of their drive to ensure that they can participate meaningfully in the elections expected to be held in October.

That’s the technical side of things. The political implications of this new party, formed on the 2nd of March, are now becoming apparent. For those unfamiliar with Tanzanian politics, since independence and the unification of Tanzania and Zanzibar, respectively, only one party has ever ruled in either place: TANU, which became CCM after the Union. My reading is that in the mainland, CCM have had no real worries about their ability to retain power.

The arrival of CCJ didn’t seem like it would influence this much one way or another. But on March 31, Fred Mpendazoe, an MP from CCM announced his defection to the new party. By this defection, Mpendazoe (described as one of the men in CCM on the front line in the battle against corruption by the same paper) has drawn rare praise. It seems this defection is likely to cost him Tsh 45 millions (roughly $35,000) in benefits and other perks of Government membership. By foregoing all of this in order to join the new party he has made himself, and his new party, front-page news. This kind of publicity will perturb CCM, but I doubt it will change the final result at the ballots on the Mainland – but if CCJ succeeds in ‘harvesting’ more members from CCM, things could get interesting.

In Zanzibar, though, the situation is different. Zanzibar’s traditionally warring major parties, CCM and CUF have agreed on a coalition Government after the coming elections, an idea which the House of Representatives just a couple of days ago agreed to put to referendum. This worried me because with CCM and CUF joining arms in a new Governmental structure, Zanzibar would be left without any viable opposition. A complete lack of contestability in Government would be disastrous for political accountability. The remaining party, Chadema, never really seemed to me to be at the races much. The emergence of any new source of political contestability would be great: Zanzibar would enjoy the benefits of peace and better representation that the coalition Government will likely bring without losing too much of the contestability that is required for democratic politics to work.

It’s going to be an interesting few months for East African politics.

UPDATE: A reader has tried the service and found that he wasn’t asked for an exact address, as reported in the papers. It seems that the service may not be all its made out to be. He still got a membership number, though. And I imagine that boosting numbers to get on the October ballot is CCJ’s main aim, so perhaps they’re getting what they need out of it.

FURTHER UPDATE: It seems that registration safeguards on this system aren’t very strong, thanks to a bit of investigation from a reader. But the point about how this technology, once problems are ironed out, could be useful remains valid.

Some thoughts on and from ‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’


By request, I received Michala Wrong’s excellent chronicle of patronage and ethnic division for Christmas. If you haven’t read or bought it yet and have even a passing interest in development, aid, corruption, ‘Africa’ or even espionage thrillers, I highly recommend you pick it up. Wrong’s storytelling feels effortless and definitive, yet manages to avoid the typical trappings of this sort of literature.

It isn’t a flawless piece of work – Wrong spends a long time trawling through John Githongo’s (interesting) life, looking for clues that this particular man was destined to be a whistle blower. I think such predetermination is unlikely; men like Githongo are as much a product of their times and of random cumulative processes (it’s worth noting that his school, credited as shaping many of his ideals also churned out many of those complicit in the sorts of scandals he was later to challenge). Her handling of the time line of Githongo’s tenure as the anti-corruption czar is also a little confusing, as she sometimes jumps back and forth by months and sometimes years (usually to make a particularly punchy point, even if it is chronologically suspect). Against these (minor!) complaints, I still find the book to be amazingly fun to read.

What has made some portions of the book more thrilling to me was my (purely geographic) proximity to some of the events taking place. I was barely a few months into my master’s degree at St. Antony’s College when Githongo took up residency there. While I remember the odd whisper and newspaper article about who he was and why he had fled Kenya, there was little in the way of detail; I was much too busy tackling graduate school to find out. So it is quite tickling to find out that he spend time at my college putting together the dossier, transcribing taped blackmail attempts and worrying about possible assassination attempts.

A few sentences that have jumped out at me during the later chapters on aid:

Other analysts might shake their heads at Sach’s simplistic formula for the continents recover, but he had successfully wooed pop-star campaigners like Bono and Sir Bob Geldof, and their ability to mobilise a younger generation bored by traditional politics awed Western governments. Whether on the right or left, political parties realised that promising to ‘save’ Africa was apo tential vote-winner in the eyes of an ideaelistic coming generation. No wonder members of the African elite, aware of these pressures, sometimes sounded unappetisingly smug when contemplating tortured Western attitudes to the continent. As one Kenyan newspaper editor told me: ‘What we Africans have relaised is that your leaders need to lend to use more than we need to be lent to.’

Wrong goes on to discuss the urgent need of development agencies to get the money flowing. She later singles out DFID, as the organisation was often at odds with the Foreign Office over what to do about the bubbling scandal Githongo was revealing. She blames DFID’s meddling on the disbursement culture: the need to keep things moving.

On accountability and fungibility:

Critics of international aid often claim it all ends up in Swiss bank accounts, a charge development officials easily swat away, pointing at the accountants and consultants who police spending. The argument should be a different one: not that the aid is itself stolen, but that donors make it possible, via that aid, for governments to dip their hands elsewhere in the budget while still delivering basic services, thereby escaping the electorate’s wrath. Accountability moves offshore, thanks to aid’s fungibility.

We’ve all been in debates about fungibility, but it wasn’t until I had read this paragraph that I considered that there might be fungibility of graft. It makes me worry about a place like Malawi, where DFID helps fund a massive fertiliser subsidy program (which makes the population happy and willing to re-elect the governing party), but might also lead to less attention on less ‘urgent’ expenditures.

And finally, on ethnicity and division among (seemingly) absurd lines:

Kimunya and Gikonyo were there to make sure John did nothing to blow the referendum campaign off course. ‘They kept saying, “SWEAR to us, SWEAR that you won’t spill the beans before the referendum. You must swear, John.” Sensing resistance, Kimunya made the mistake of appealing to John’s supposed ethnic loyalites. ‘Do you really think uncircumcised people can rule Kenya?’

Pick it up.

The struggle of the African farmer, from the safety of your own home

Suit up, it's time to take on world poverty, with your game pad

Suit up, it's time to take on world poverty, with your game pad

Thanks to Kerry Brennan at the Innovations for Poverty Action blog, I’ve discovered my new favourite computer game: Third World Farmer!

From the game’s website:

In the game, the player gets to manage an African farm, and is soon confronted with the often difficult choices that poverty and conflict necessitate. We find this kind of experience efficient at making the issues relevant to people, because players tend to invests their hopes in a game character whose fate depends on him. We aim at making the player “experience” the injustices, rather than being told about them, so as to stimulate a deeper and more personal reflection on the topics.

OK, sounds a little preachy, but let’s give it a go.

  1. Turn one. My name is Eyakobo (which I quickly change to *Matt*). I’m married with two children. I own a hut and my family is in good health. I’ve got some cash ($50) and a field, so let’s get the planting started. I plant mostly maize (corn) with a couple sections of peanuts (high risk) to diversify my crop portfolio.
  2. Turn two. Rats! A drought year! I lose all my crops and am now $12 in debt. My health has suffered.
  3. Turn three. No cash, so we go without proper food for a year.
  4. Turn four. A seedy businessman offers to let me grow opium (?!?!) on my plot, I do so and quickly turn a tidy profit of $152. I buy a shed, some chickens, and another diverse set of crops.
  5. Turn five. Rats! a drought year! I lose all my crops, and now have no money to plant more, just my chickens.
  6. Turn six. Rats! My chickens died! My health is low. No money for food.
  7. Turn seven. “Some paramilitaries hear of your relative success as a farmer and raid your farm, taking everything.”
  8. I die. My wife dies. I send my daughter away to work (and get $1 in return). My son is old enough to run the farm himself. I find him a wife. The wife has, as a clickable option: have a baby (the demographic economists go wild).

I could keep on going about the epic story of my son’s family, but it’s much of the same. Just when things look like they are going well, you get slapped down by the unjust hand of fate (anything from rising input prices, higher costs of living, wars, famines, dumb neighbors, diseases, chicken-specific diseases). These shocks seem a little too convenient (just when I was doing well, something bad happens). It’s a bit like an African Oregon Trail (without the perpetual dread of fording rivers).

I’ve got mixed feelings about this game. On one hand, the game feels like “Poverty Porn: The Game, African Stereotype Edition”. On the other hand, it does at least a minimally decent job of modeling the sort of  decision-making economists like to think about (it’s a good year, do I have a child? What sort of crops do I plant? Should I buy crop insurance?). Give it a whirl and post your experiences on here!

Wow: how about we have the most prominent development economists compete to see who can do the best? Development bloggers, who’s in?

The dog with two bones

Ian Birrell of the Independent asks a question that’s worth a ponder: why do the British give money to repressive countries?

Why, he asks, is Britain handing out so much aid to [Rwanda] when its ruler is fighting a proxy war in the Congo; when its elites are getting rich on stolen minerals; when democracy is a sham and dissent is stifled?

And aid flows into Uganda, where Yoweri Museveni’s regime has been accused of torture and repression. Britain increased total aid to Ethiopia even after Meles Zenawi, another poster boy for this supposed new wave of African leaders, oversaw a brutal clampdown following a blatantly rigged election and waged war on Somalia. A strange paradox seems to be emerging: the more money spent on aid, the less chance of criticism.

Birrell also highlight’s DFID’s growing power in Anglo-African relations:

The most outrageous example was in Kenya, where Dfid officials tried to prevent the British ambassador from speaking out against obscene corruption. Only last week I heard of a senior minister who, told he was signing agreements with one of Kenya’s most corrupt politicians, glibly replied that he was less interested in the man’s record than the desire to get children into education. Little wonder Kenya remains plagued by corruption.

The problem is that out of the many reasons we give aid, the only two that are (arguably) unselfish often conflict with each other:

  1. giving aid to hammer away at poverty and inspire economic growth and
  2. giving aid to incentivise governments to stay free, accountable and democratic.

Does our pursuit of poverty reduction collide with our preference for a free and democratic world (the titular two bones)? We’d like our decisions to be clear-cut: When governments are both repressive and bad at governing (or free and follow good policies) the decision is pretty easy.

However, when we’re dealing with countries that are relatively free but still have incompetent governments or those that are repressive yet follow good development/economic policies, our decisions will be marked with flecks of grey.

Sometimes I feel like I’m closer to the “give effective aid even if it gives you icky feelings” camp. Effective governments are arguably more important than free ones – Robert Mugabe’s economic policies did far more damage to Zimbabwe than his brutal methods of staying in power.

On the other hand, it does feel particularly icky to look the other way when successful governments begin to look more authoritarian, as they have in Uganda, Rwanda (and as donors in Malawi often did while I was there).

What do you think?