From 5 to 7 June 2022, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel (Democratic Party – DP) and the Minister of the Economy and Minister for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs, Franz Fayot (Luxembourg Socialist Workers' Party – LSAP), paid an official visit to Niger and Rwanda, at the invitation of the two African countries' respective presidents, Mohamed Bazoum and Paul Kagame.
A 38-strong delegation comprised of members of the Luxembourg government, private sector representatives and members of the press (including Chronicle.lu) set off for Niger on the morning of Sunday 5 June 2022, on board an Italian Air Force tanker transport aircraft (Boeing KC-767) – made available through the European Air Transport Command (EATC) aircraft-sharing initiative.
The aim of the official visit to Niger was to facilitate high-level meetings between representatives of the Luxembourg and Nigerien governments, which focused on an assessment of humanitarian and security policy in Niger and the Sahel region, but also to allow the Luxembourg delegation to witness first-hand the results of the government's development cooperation and humanitarian aid policy in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Upon our arrival at Diori Hamani International Airport about six hours after take-off in Luxembourg, the Luxembourg delegation received a warm welcome – warm both in terms of a festive performance and the 40-degree dry heat that awaited us in Niamey… In fact, like most of the West Africa Sahel region, Niger has a hot climate with very high temperatures year-round; two-thirds of its territory lies within the Sahara Desert.
As mentioned in a previous article, the Republic of Niger is considered one of the least developed countries in the world, consistently ranking (near) last in the United Nations’ (UN) Human Development Index (HDI). According to the World Bank Group, over 80% of Niger’s population of 24.2 million depends on agriculture to survive, with small-scale farmers particularly suffering from climate vulnerability. In addition to the challenges posed by climate change and famine, Niger is impacted by insecurity in the Sahel region. The landlocked country is bordered by Burkina Faso and Mali (among other countries) in the west, which make up the Liptako-Gourma region, to which Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel recently referred as a "triangle of insecurity".
Figures provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) show that there are more than 580,000 forcibly displaced people in Niger at present. Between January and mid-April 2022, Niger witnessed a significant influx of new refugees (more than 36,000) coming from Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso, as a result of escalating violence in the region. In addition, political instability and violence within Niger's own borders have forced about 264,000 internally displaced people from their homes, according to the UNHCR. Many of these people have sought refuge in the Red Cross-run Ouallam camp for displaced persons, located approximately 90 km north of Niamey, in southwestern Niger.
The Luxembourg delegation had the opportunity to visit this camp and speak with the Red Cross teams, as well as some of the people living in the camp, on Monday 6 June 2022. In theory, new arrivals stay in the camp for six months as a period of transition, although often many remain there for several years. The Luxembourg Red Cross provides enough support for almost 2,000 households (each composed of five to six individuals) each year. However, as Prosper Zombre, Chief of Mission for the Luxembourg Red Cross in Niger, told members of the Luxembourg press: "The demand is bigger than the offer". The camp, located in one of the hottest places in Niger, is dotted with small environmentally friendly soil brick shelters covered in sheeting, temporary latrines and other makeshift shelters serving as provisional schools.
What is equally impressive to the work of the Red Cross teams in Ouallam is the spirit of coexistence and tolerance present in this camp – thousands of displaced people from different countries, backgrounds and cultures appear to be able to live together peacefully and to work together for a better life. Many of them gathered with interest for the speeches of Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who later spoke and took photographs with a few families and listened to their stories, as well as those of Niger Red Cross President Ali Bandiaré and Niger's Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou (who, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the security situation in the region, but no less unnervingly, was flanked by many armed Nigerien soldiers; our delegation had security as well, but not to the same extent). As we departed, small children ran after our jeeps smiling and waving at us, causing me pause to reflect on how fortunate I am to live in a peaceful country and really bringing home the impact of conflict (and climate change) on people's lives – as someone who was born in Northern Ireland just four years before the Good Friday Agreement put an end to a decades-long bloody civil war, I had almost always known peace in Europe until the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The Ouallam camp visit was a stark reminder of the ongoing consequences of conflict beyond the European continent.
Vocational training and water projects
Whilst the visit to the Ouallam camp was perhaps the most impressive part of our trip to Niger (at least in my opinion), in terms of seeing first-hand the hard work of the Red Cross and getting a glimpse of the daily lives of people living in such camps, the Luxembourg delegation also had the opportunity to visit an artisanal village and a water pump – two more projects supported by Luxembourg's Development Cooperation programme. The former could be described as a success story in terms of the transmission of know-how, provision of vocational training and creation of employment, particularly for women and young people, although, as Luxembourg's Economy and Development Minister himself noted, there is a limited market for such products within Niger itself. The latter, a €127,000 drinking water distribution system in the Nigerien village of Simiri, is an example of a locally implemented project supported technically and financially (in part) by the Grand Duchy through the national agency for development cooperation, LuxDevelopment SA (LuxDev). The project provides thousands of people with affordable clean water. As Prime Minister Xavier Bettel emphasised, "water is life" and a lack of water can cause all sorts of health and other problems. Recently, solar panels were also set up on the water pump site as part of this project.
These are just some of the projects being supported by the Luxembourg government in Niger, which has been a priority partner country for Luxembourg’s Development Cooperation programme since 1989. In May 2021, the two countries signed their fourth multi-annual Indicative Cooperation Programme (ICP) with an indicative budget of €144.5 million – the highest amount ever granted to a partner country – for the period from 2022 to 2026. The current ICP focuses on support in various key sectors including access to clean water, healthcare, education and sustainable agriculture.
Whilst it was an incredible experience to witness the results of Luxembourg’s Development Cooperation programme on the ground, and it does seem that this money is being put to good use, the power dynamics between one of the world's richest countries and one of the poorest could not be ignored. Nigerien leaders made clear how dependent their country was on Luxembourgish (and other foreign) money, and it was quite difficult to escape this "white saviour" complex – not that this was the fault of Luxembourg's Development Cooperation programme, which genuinely appears to be trying to help Niger stand on its own feet. Indeed, the dynamics were very different in Rwanda, for example, but more on this later.
Moreover, whilst Luxembourg appears to have found an ally in Niger in the unstable Sahel region, work remains to be done within the country as it pursues its democratic transition (since Mohamed Bazoum became the first democratically elected President of Niger in more than 60 years in February 2021) – a transition with the Luxembourg government is visibly trying to support.
Despite some criticism over support for a controversial regime, during the official visit to Niger, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel assured that his government "tr[ies] to support countries where we know that the help will be used and not misused". Emphasis is placed on the 3D approach, combining diplomacy, development (cooperation) and defence policy.
Rwanda: Trade, not aid
Unlike Niger, Rwanda (or at least its capital, Kigali) appeared to be on a more equal footing with the Grand Duchy, as both countries explored mutually beneficial economic ties during this official visit. As Minister Fayot stated at a business networking event in Kigali on Tuesday 7 June 2022, relations with Rwanda were about "trade, not aid". Separated by about 3,500 km in distance (a seven-hour flight for us), Niger and Rwanda could not be more different in terms of development and the security situation, and the same is true for their respective relationships with Luxembourg.
Unlike the semi-arid climate of Niger, Rwanda boasts a temperate tropical highland climate. This small (compared to other African countries) landlocked country ranks second in Africa and 38th out of 190 countries globally in the World Bank's "Doing Business" report (2020) on the easisest places to do business.
Indeed, the visit to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on Tuesday – the very first such visit of a Luxembourg Prime Minister to Rwanda – focused primarily on bilateral relations in the economic and digital fields. Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who also serves as Luxembourg’s Minister for Communications and Media, delivered a speech as guest of honour at the opening session of the Partner2Connect (a multi-stakeholders alliance aimed at promoting meaningful connectivity and digital transformation worldwide) Digital Development Roundtable during the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC), organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), for the first time in Africa, at the Kigali Convention Centre from 6 to 16 June 2022.
A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, however, showed a different story, presenting us with a stark reminder of Rwanda's not-so-distant bloody past, when neighbour turned against neighbour, friend against friend, even family against family, ultimately as a result of European colonialism which began almost one century earlier… This makes it all the more impressive to see just how far Rwanda has come since the 1994 genocide.
It is also worth noting that past relations between Luxembourg and Rwanda, like those between the Grand Duchy and Niger, also had more of a development aid focus: Luxembourg non-profit organisations had been present in the country since the 1960s and official bilateral cooperation began in 1989 with the rehabilitation of the Rwamagana Hospital. Between 2002 and 2013, Luxembourg gradually halted its Rwandan projects as part of its policy of targeting a limited number of partner countries. Currently, six Luxembourg non-profits are co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs through development projects in Rwanda, mainly working in the fields of education, vocational training, health, conflict prevention and peace construction.
In 2000, the Rwandan government launched a long-term development strategy named "Vision 2020", with the aim of transforming Rwanda into a knowledge-based middle-income country by 2020. The strategy achieved some success and, in December 2020, the government unveiled "Vision 2050", which focuses on economic growth and prosperity and a high quality of life for Rwandans, aiming to make Rwanda an upper-middle income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050.
Annual surveys carried out by the Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce in recent years revealed a strong interest in Rwanda among companies in the Grand Duchy. In March 2022, a mission took place to identify potential areas of cooperation, which emerged as namely technical and vocational training, the environment and sustainable development, and inclusive and innovative finance.
All in all, this foreign mission was a truly unique opportunity to witness the implementation and results of Luxembourg’s Development Cooperation programme in Niger, as well as the beginnings of a potentially fruitful economic relationship between Luxembourg and Rwanda. It is certainly difficult (and rather unfair) to compare the two countries and work certainly remains to be done, particularly in Niger and taking into account the fact that we only visited the capital in Rwanda, but it was impressive to see the concrete action being taken by Luxembourg abroad, in all its different forms.
Luxembourg has dedicated 1% of its gross national income (GNI) to public development aid since 2009, implemented according to a partnership approach through bilateral and multilateral cooperation instruments.
Between 1999 and 2021, Luxembourg invested a total of more than €312 million in official development assistance.