An Interview with Donald W. Koran, U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda

Rwanda ambassadorDonald W. Koran was sworn in as the Ambassador to Rwanda on August 8, 2011.  He is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service who had previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Rwanda from 1999 to 2001.  His other assignments include Havana, Caracas, Antananarivo, Lomé, Rabat and Niamey, as well as in the State Department’s bureaus of African Affairs, International Organization Affairs, and Intelligence and Research.  Koran has a B.A. from the University of Texas, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Johns Hopkins University in economics. He is married and has two daughters.

The Politic: What led you to join the Foreign Service, and why do you think Rwanda was assigned to you in particular?

I did not join right out of school. Like most Foreign Service officers, I did not join until later. After getting my undergraduate degree, I got a Ph.D., taught economics for a while, had a couple of other jobs in Washington, and then joined the FS when I was 29. I had known some people before who had been in the FS, so I had some idea of what the work was like; that is what got me interested in it. As far as why I came to Rwanda, that was quite a bit later. I served in Rwanda from 1999-2001 and then was gone for ten years, so coming back here as ambassador was a fairly natural step.

Foreign Service careers tend to evolve in their own way. I served here as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy from 1999 to 2001, and even that was a natural progression from my job before that when I was the desk officer for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So I was following issues there, and the concerns tend to follow you even after you are gone. So when the opportunity to be ambassador here came up, I was quite interested in it.

The Politic: Today, as the most densely-populated country in Africa, Rwanda’s economy struggles, especially with the issue of sufficient food production. How do you see Rwanda overcoming the limitations of its small, landlocked economy?

Well the most densely-populated part is interesting because that is a way of saying it is one of the most fertile parts of Africa. It has a dense population because it has fertile soil and good rainfall, so it is able to sustain a dense population. My last overseas post was in Niger, which is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Africa, but it didn’t mean it was any easier because of it. In fact, there was very little arable land.

Rwanda’s population growth rate is in the process of coming down. It is at roughly three percent now, but the government is keenly aware of the need to bring that down further if they are going to achieve middle-income status as they hope to do, and the U.S. government is working closely with the Rwandan government on family-planning issues.

The Politic: At a time when economic growth is so critical, do you see Rwanda’s electricity shortage and increasing power outages as posing a significant problem for its business growth?

Well, in truth, I don’t recall an increase in power outages earlier this year. But that’s not to say it isn’t an issue. The current estimates are that only roughly 15 percent of Rwandans are on the electrical grid. Electricity is very expensive here, so that is one of the constraints on growth. And it is one that the government is very aware of, and it is actively working to increase power generation capacity, using a number of means — everything from micro hydro to methane gas to geothermal to solar. Right now, most of the power is produced from burning fossil fuels, which have to be imported and become very expensive. Long term, the government is keenly aware of the fact that it needs to have a reliable power system that covers the entire country and that is affordable.

The Politic: A little over a year ago, The Economist published an article about President Paul Kagame’s efforts to convert Rwanda into the business hub or “the Singapore” of Africa. A year later, where would you say Rwanda today stands in achieving this goal, in terms of progress and remaining challenges?

Well, a year isn’t a very long time, but President Kagame’s resolution goes back to about 2000, really, when they adopted what’s called Rwanda Vision 2020. What that says is that Rwanda plans to reach middle income status by the year 2020. Part of that is by becoming a regional hub for various activities — information technologies, tourism, etc. So I hate to focus on any given year and say what they have done.

But over the last 13 years since that strategy was adopted, we have made quite a bit of progress in a number of areas. If I had to pick one, I would probably say health. The health statistics across the board have been very impressive. Infant mortality, child mortality, and mortality while giving birth have gone down. And we have also done a lot of work with family planning and have been able to dispense antivirals to pretty much anyone who needed them.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame of Rwanda emphasizes his commitment to making information and communication technology a foundation stone of his country's economic development programme
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda emphasizes his commitment to communication technology

The Politic: Building off of this, many economists say Rwanda has successfully promoted business by eliminating corruption, which is reflected in Rwanda’s relatively positive rankings in the 2012 CPI report. How has Rwanda created this growing culture of transparency and what strides can other countries take to parallel Rwanda’s?

Well, Rwanda has not eliminated corruption — no country has. That being said, they have reduced it better than most other countries in the region. And they have done it by instilling a culture of anti-corruption throughout the government. You don’t see the kind of petty corruption you see in a lot of places: you are not shaken down by policemen. You don’t have to pay fees for civil documents. There is very much a culture of openness and transparency, and counter-corruption comes from the top. They have created such a systemic tradition by showing very little tolerance for corruption — people at all levels, even very high levels, can be charged with corruption and punished, so there isn’t the impunity that you see in many other countries.

Politic: Despite this, there has been a large human rights concern over the seemingly corrupt, authoritarian direction the government is taking with its laws criminalizing genocide ideology, used to stifle dissent. As ambassador to Rwanda, how, if at all, do you promote quintessential American ideals, such as freedom of expression and rule of law?

Well, we bring that up fairly regularly. As you know, the State Department publishes a human rights report every year that contains chapters for every country in the world, so we follow these issues very closely. “Human rights” is a very broad term, and Rwanda does better in some categories of human rights than in others.

Freedom of the press, freedom of expression —we bring up these concepts often. I think with the genocide ideology laws, we recognize that Rwanda, because of its history, has certain concerns that we do not, and we would not necessarily apply the same standards. That is not to say that more couldn’t be done to liberalize speech here. But Rwandans will sometimes point out the fact that even some Western European democracies have Holocaust denial laws. We don’t have these in the United States — we would not accept that, but other countries do.

Rule of law is another very broad concept that includes both political and economic factors. It is a work in progress in Rwanda, as with everywhere else. And Rwanda again has made more progress in some aspects relative to others. No country, including Rwanda, is perfect.

At a Rwandan genocide memorial, the remains of those killed stand as a testament to what took place
A Rwandan genocide memorial

The Politic: Twenty years after the genocide, Rwanda still has not fully rebounded culturally — refugees fearing retribution still reside in surrounding regions, such as Burundi. How can the Hutus and Tutsis best rebuild their relationship and move forward towards a more unified and culturally distinct Rwanda?

Well, there aren’t significant groups of refugees from Rwanda — quite the contrary. Rwanda has been very successful in attracting refugees who have fled in the past, and there are very few people who are leaving Rwanda as refugees now. The government is quite adamant about not using ethnicity in any aspect of its work, almost to an extreme. So that is really something that’s not mentioned here.

That isn’t to say that it’s not an issue here and that there is not something beneath the surface. I mean, everybody realizes that there are ethnic issues out there, but basically the government policy has been to treat Rwandans as Rwandans and not appeal to ethnicity. Whether it is been a successful effort so far is tough to say; it is a very hard issue to get our hands on. I think everybody recognizes that it is something that will require generations to really deal with. I mean, [cultural relations] are something that every country deals with — Rwanda had it in an extreme case with the genocide.

The Politic: What, if any, role does the U.S. play in helping Rwanda to eliminate the post-genocide stratification of educational opportunities, residual from Rwanda’s colonial past?

Traditionally, Rwanda has very limited educational opportunities on the whole — I’m not sure I would apply the word “stratification.”  I don’t know the statistics, but relatively few people went to primary schools, even fewer to secondary, and even fewer pursued higher education. And those numbers have increased across the board since the genocide.

In theory, education is free and available up until high school — which is not to say, necessarily, that everybody goes, but that is the goal — to have more people go on to university. There are still a lot of issues — as you have more people attending school, you have to provide the extra resources to provide a decent level of quality and hopefully improve the quality.  One issue in particular that sets Rwanda apart from any other country that I am aware of is the switch from French to English as the language of instruction. But the opportunities have been growing across the board for Rwanda as to getting education.

As for America, our foreign assistance programs, which is almost 200 million dollars a year, is largely allocated to the health sector, probably around 160 million. After that, the biggest chunk of our assistance is in agriculture and food security. However, we do have some programs in the education field through the USAID and public diplomacy.

402nd Civil Affairs Functional Specialty Team surgeon Col. David Hayes, assigned to Combined Joint Task Force _ Horn of Africa (right), listens to Lt. Phocas Mukibi, Rwanda Defense Force battalion medical officer
American surgeon Col. David Hayes with Rwandan Defense Force battalion medical officer

The Politic: As a whole, what has been the largest challenge you have faced working as an ambassador or with the Foreign Service in general?

In Rwanda, the challenge is that there are a lot of activities in a lot of different sectors. And some things work very well, very efficiently — in other areas, we have differences. And it is working through those areas in which we have differences and maintaining cooperative relationships in the areas where we have no differences. That is a pretty generic answer that could apply to a lot of ambassadors, but that’s certainly the case here.

The Politic: Specific to Rwanda, what are the largest differences you’ve had to work through?

In the last few years, it has been Rwanda’s involvement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The issue is that at the end of last year, we thought, or at least found to be true, that Rwanda was supporting a rebel group in the Congo that was destabilizing the Eastern part of the country. As a result, we suspended some military assistance. That is been a big part of our dialogue with Rwanda at various levels, up to and including the presidents of both countries.

The Politic: Is there a person, experience, or event in Rwanda that has greatly influenced your policies?

I’m not sure that there is a particular person or event that’s influenced my policies. In all my dealings here, I have come across all sorts of contacts in all sorts of fields — there have been lots of people, so it is hard to isolate one person or event that has influenced my thinking.

The Politic: Stepping back, what are some areas in which you found America was not so successful and in which you wish we had done more?

I think the U.S. foreign assistance program is somewhat slow to change, and to advance the appropriation process is often cumbersome. The money we’re spending now was probably appropriated several years ago. The U.S. government is not as flexible, I think, as anyone in the government would like. So there are areas in which we wish we could have responded more quickly to development.

The Politic: As a whole, how do you think America’s represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

Of course there are. Any American diplomat probably would not agree with all of our policies. But our job is to express those policies abroad and to express our disagreements internally when appropriate. As to what they are specifically, I disagree in private.


Embassy of the United States to Rwanda:

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Published by Amy Chang

Amy Chang is an Associate Editor of The Politic from Hockessin, Delaware. Contact her at

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