Jobs and Justice in Rwanda

By Leila Janah, CEO, Sama Group at the 2015 African Philanthropy Forum Conference.

Sama connects low-income people around the world to internet-based work. The organization’s signature program Samasource has moved over 7,000 families from $2/day to $8/day in East Africa and South Asia.

Thirteen years ago, I spent six weeks in Rwanda with an incredible research team from Harvard. We were all undergraduates at the time, and had little idea what we were in for. We had come to study a grassroots court system called Gacaca, set up to try perpetrators of the genocide and bring justice and reconciliation to the population. We interviewed dozens of victims, prisoners, and justice officials, traveled all over the country to watch the courts unfold, and wrote about our work for a journal.

This visit for APF was my first time back since that trip. It was hard to imagine then, and harder still now, to imagine that this picturesque African capital was the seat of such terror. But my experience at APF, and many weeks of speaking with Rwandans in rural parts of the country, confirmed for me that the only lesson to be learned from genocide is that humans are equally susceptible to generosity, hopefulness and compassion as they are to violence and greed.

Watching Rwandans rebuild their country as a 19-year-old in 2002 was deeply moving, and it taught me much about development and poverty. I remember a common thread across our interviews — nearly everyone we spoke with said that the key to justice was economic agency.

In other words, the key to justice is a job that pays a decent wage.

It was remarkable to hear from so many conference attendees that the same holds true today. Sangu Delle echoed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarks when he said “there is no freedom without economic agency.” Dr. Agnes Binagwaho began her presentation by discussing Rwanda’s efforts to become a middle-income country by 2020, reminding us that “health is wealth” — health outcomes are inextricably linked to income.

For too long, we’ve operated in philanthropic silos — health, education, economic development, and human rights are seen as separate categories of practice. But if we are to put human well-being at the forefront of our work, using a single measurement of well-being as the outcome (and there are now plenty to choose from, including the popular Quality-Adjusted Life-Year, or QALY, used in health outcomes measurement), we see that all of our interventions are deeply interconnected. It’s true, there is no health without wealth. And there’s also probably poor education, a greater risk of sex trafficking, and myriad other problems without enough wealth to escape poverty.

This was the ultimate lesson for me at the conference, and it seemed to resonate with so many other attendees. Personally, I hope to repay all the people we interviewed in that summer of 2002 for what they taught me: that justice is so much more nuanced and complicated than we in the West imagine.