When Donald Koran ’80, MA ’82, PhD, worked in Rwanda from 1999 to 2001, as deputy chief of mission, the second-highest diplomatic post in a U.S. embassy, the country’s 1994 genocide was still a fresh wound. Parts of Rwanda were still dangerous, and at times, U.S. officials had to travel with armed guards.
When Koran returned to Rwanda last summer, this time as the newly appointed U.S. ambassador, conditions were different. “Living in Rwanda today is a pleasant surprise,” he says. Coming back “makes me appreciate the fairly dramatic changes that have occurred since I was last here.” The country is safer, the economy is growing, and the health sector is improving.
But Rwanda is still very much a developing country. That makes Koran, an economist, well-suited to his new role. After completing his PhD at Johns Hopkins, Koran worked at Tulane University, the Federal Trade Commission, and the National Cable Television Association. But he soon realized he didn’t want to focus on narrow economic problems; he wanted a more “varied” career. That desire led him to the Foreign Service. Joining in 1984, Koran has worked all over the world, including Cuba, Venezuela, Morocco, Niger, and Madagascar.
Now as ambassador, he has found the ultimate in varied job loads. “I deal with it all: politics, economics, public diplomacy, consular issues, embassy management, the Peace Corps, military relations, and the whole range of our foreign assistance programs,” he says. On a typical day, Koran may meet with representatives from the Centers for Disease Control to discuss health programs in Rwanda, help an American nongovernmental organization understand legal issues, and tour local businesses making jewelry and crafts that are exported to American markets.
It’s also rewarding to see the country doing better, he notes. “Rwanda has made impressive economic strides since the genocide.” Over the last 10 years, the country’s gross domestic product has grown by an average of 7 percent, managing to expand even during the recent global economic crisis.
“A number of factors have contributed to its success,” he says, “but it largely comes down to attracting resources and using them well.” In addition to effectively using foreign aid—the United States provided Rwanda with more than $200 million in foreign assistance last year, mostly for health-related initiatives—the Rwandan government has instituted economic policies and political reforms that have cracked down on corruption and have made Rwanda an attractive place to invest in and start a business, Koran says. In fact, this year, the World Bank ranked it as 45th out of 183 countries in terms of ease of conducting business.
Rwanda is also making social and health improvements. With better access to health care, for example, rates of childhood mortality under the age of 5 have dropped by half over the past five years. And women have gained greater rights, playing an active role in reshaping the country. The 2003 Rwandan Constitution specifies that women must fill 24 of the 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, Rwanda’s lower house of parliament. Today, women exceed that quota, making up more than half of the Chamber.
Given all these developments, Koran says, “a remarkably large number of Rwandans, many highly educated and well-established abroad, have returned to build their country.”
Still, “Rwanda remains a poor country with many needs,” he says. “Rwanda has made great strides in reconciliation since the 1994 genocide, but it is a long-term process, and much still needs to be done.” Rwanda has to find a balance between preventing future ethnic conflicts and allowing an open, democratic political system to flourish. Critics of the government say that Rwanda’s genocide laws, some of which are aimed at preventing ethnic hate speech, limit legitimate political opposition and debate.
But for Koran, Rwanda’s successes are what make it such a “fascinating” place to work. “So much is happening here,” he says. “It’s exciting to watch it and satisfying to be part of it in some small way.”