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Kagame: foreign aid on our terms

Writing in the Financial Times today, Rwandan President Paul Kagame makes a strong case against the "aid regime" as we know it. "The cycle of aid and poverty is durable: as long as poor nations are focused on receiving aid they will not work to improve their economies," he writes. He's piping in on a debate sparked by recent FP contributor Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, which argues that Africa's prosperity begins when the inflow of aid ends:

"Some of Ms Moyo’s prescriptions, such as ending all aid within five years, are aggressive. But I always thought this was the discussion we should be having: when to end aid and how best to end it."

At first glance, this argument -- coming from Kagame -- strikes me as odd. Rwanda, and the president in particular, has garnered a reputation as a "darling" of Western donors over the last decade. Today, about 50 percent of the country's budget comes from foreign aid. And the number could rise. Last week, the country announced a funding gap of $47.4 million for its 2009/2010 budget, thanks to falling exports amid the global financial crisis. Where will that money come from? "[I]f Rwanda does not receive adequate grants, the ministry said, the balance of payments deficit could widen to $251.5 million," Reuters reports.

Then again, it's both fantastic and unsurprising to hear Kagame promising to wean his country from development aid -- through savy business ventures and smart economic policy. In fact, that's what the president has already started to do, and it's the reason that many consider Rwanda the emerging Singapore of Sub-Saharan Africa. The example is one to follow -- and not just in the developing world. 

Either way, Kagame's move is bold. His op-ed in the FT opens his governance and his country up to scrutiny, based on the standard he himself has set:

"No one should pretend that they care about our nations more than we do; or assume that they know what is good for us better than we do ourselves. They should, in fact, respect us for wanting to decide our own fate."

Let's hope he decides well.

PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images

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Poll: Obama more popular than U.S. in the Middle East

McClatchy reports on the Middle East's love affair with U.S. President Barack Obama:

The poll of six Arab nations found that residents think that Obama will have a positive impact on the Middle East — a region marked by war, religious disputes, ethnic and sectarian violence — as well as on the United States and the rest of the world.

Obama scored highest in Jordan, where 58 percent of its citizens have a favorable opinion of him, 29 percent have an unfavorable view, 6 percent had no opinion and 7 percent didn't know.

Saudi Arabians have a 53 percent favorable opinion of Obama, followed by 52 percent in the United Arab Emirates. From there, Obama's popularity dips below 50 percent with a 47 percent favorability rating in Kuwait, 43 percent in Lebanon and 35 percent in Egypt. In none of these countries, however, was Obama's unfavorable rating higher than his favorable one.

In contrast, only 38 percent of Saudis have a favorable view of the United States, followed by 36 percent of Jordanians, 34 percent of UAE residents, 31 percent of Lebanese and 22 percent of Egyptians.

Notably, Egypt ranks dead last on both poll questions, but it's also the site of Obama's upcoming address to the Arab and Muslim worlds. The country is also the thankless recipient of billions in U.S. economic and military aid.

As my colleague Marc Lynch explains, it's not an ideal venue. "The choice of Cairo is already being interpreted by many Arabs and Egyptians as proof that Obama has abandoned democracy and human rights promotion," he writes, adding, "Obama could take advantage of the location to forcefully speak out in favor of democratization and human rights."

I'd counter that Egyptians' cynicism about the United States is fully warranted, and likely to be vindicated by events. They understand quite well that, no matter who is in power, every U.S. president ultimately prioritizes keeping its preferential Suez Canal access, maintaining peace with Israel, and having a pliant ally in the region over meaningful support for human rights and democracy in Egypt.

For Egyptians, it won't matter, except in the short run, what Obama says in Cairo. It matters what America does, and his administration has already staked its position. Here's Gates last week:

Q: U.S. assistance to Egypt under the previous administration was linked to human rights progress. Is the Obama administration changing or shifting that policy? Did you hear concerns here in your talks about the level of U.S. military assistance to Egypt?
 
SEC. GATES: Well, clearly, the United States always is supportive of human rights, and that is no less true of the Obama administration than other administrations. By the same token, it is important to continue our work and our friendship with these countries. And the position of the administration is that as an example the foreign military financing that's in the budget should be without conditions. And that is our sustained position.
CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images