Review of A Thousand Hills to Heaven by Josh Ruxin

I ran across A Thousand Hills to Heaven, a 2013 book by Josh Ruxin, at a local Little Free Library. Ruxin is an expert in global development, and in Heaven, he tells his personal story of how he and his wife Alissa moved to Rwanda to develop a Millennium Village as well as a first-class restaurant. (“Land of a thousand hills” is a common nickname for Rwanda, and “Heaven” is the name of the Ruxins’ restaurant.) One reason that I was intrigued was that my church has invested considerable effort into its ministry in Haiti, and many people have drawn comparisons between Rwanda and Haiti. The usual narrative is that Rwanda’s battle against poverty is an ongoing success story, which could serve as a model for Haiti.

Ruxin’s book is no dry academic treatise on development. It is first and foremost a personal memoir, and he openly discusses the challenges that he and his wife have faced in their personal lives as well as their professional lives. He devotes a lot of space to describing several of their associates (mostly Rwandan) who have played a key role in their story. There are even several recipes from Heaven at the end of the book. As a result, Heaven is appealing to a wide audience, not just to people interested in global poverty.

As is well known, Rwanda suffered an unimaginably horrific genocide, most notably in 1994 but actually dating back to 1959 when the Belgians pulled out. Ruxin tells many gruesome anecdotes from that time, as well as uplifting stories of people who have survived and learned to forgive and moved on. These stories alone are worth the price of the book.

What I was most interested in, however, were Ruxin’s insights into what works and what doesn’t work in the arena of global development. Early in his career, Ruxin developed a close working relationship with Jeffrey Sachs, author of the well-known book The End of Poverty. Millennium Villages were in many ways the brainchild of Sachs, so it is not too surprising that Ruxin (and the NGO he founded, Health Builders) had the opportunity to run one in the rural community of Mayange in Rwanda. The idea behind a Millennium Village is to demonstrate by example that concerted effort can permanently lift a village out of poverty. Millennium Villages have had mixed success, and evaluating them scientifically has been difficult because they did not follow the randomized-controlled-trial methodology favored by people such as the recent Nobel-winning economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, but Mayange seems to have been one of the success stories, so it is interesting to hear what Ruxin says are the ingredients for success.

In the book, Ruxin gives five rules, one for each finger.

The first rule, represented by my best-fed digit, my thumb, is pretty obvious: People who are starving cannot be asked to do more than eat. Many of the twenty-five thousand survivors and returnees in Mayange needed food, and they needed it immediately. …

If, after you feed them, you do not get them to solve their own food problems, but instead you just keep handing out food, then you are not doing them any real favors, and you are also wasting aid money that could be used more effectively.

Ruxin gives some wise practical advice about handling a food crisis. Here is one observation that I found particularly insightful.

We knew that the expat team members should not be the people handing out the food. If your town ran out of food, would you want someone from another nation handing you the food, or would you want your longtime neighbor to hand it to you? You would want a neighborhood committee to have figured out how to organize the distribution. That way, your dignity would be intact. Your children would see neighbors doing something together to feed their families—they would not see their parents looking like helpless victims.

Rule Two states that high standards must be imposed without cultural shyness.

For me, the pointing index finger represents this rule: It is not cultural imperialism to demand high standards in a developing country, where those standards improve performance and upgrade the institutions that serve people and help them have better lives. The imposition of high standards is almost always a great gift to that society. To see poor sanitation in a newborn nursery and to say, “Well, we’re not in the US, after all, and this is their way,” is soft bigotry of the worst sort. To save lives in this world, it is sometimes necessary to stand and say, “This won’t do; this won’t do at all,” and then see to it that things are improved.

Rule Three, associated with the middle finger, is to “give the finger” to hopelessly corrupt countries.

What would happen if we told the most corrupt governments to take a hike? What would happen if we concentrated our aid dollars on the least corrupt nations needing help? The rise in prosperity in the honest nations would create tremendous pressure on the others to clean up. The pressure could come in the form of revolution or it could come from diplomatic and economic pressure. Whatever the case, Rwanda provides a road map that many other nations should consider replicating.

Rule Four concerns the avoidance of dependency.

Learning over and over the need for sustainability became our fourth rule, represented by the wedding ring finger: We are not here as a lifelong commitment. We should not be married to our programs. We should ultimately never be the essential party, even though we do have leadership responsibilities at the beginning.

The better NGOs—and there were not many of them—would nurture Rwandans to lead their efforts, and they would find ways to make the improvements sustainable, then they would leave. … Don’t start anything that won’t be sustainable after you leave—and do leave: that is the rule.

Rule Five emphasizes the importance of the private sector.

The pinky finger of our handful of rules is to trust the market as the biggest player, even if the power of the market looks small now. Rule Five is a reminder to never be afraid of the profit model, as it can carry the heaviest load of long-term development. Profit brings sustainability, not to mention dignity.

Most international development schemes rely on two legs: a hint of government action and NGO charity. But a third leg, the market, is the strongest of the three and is often overlooked. No nation, not even the United States, has enough public and foundation money to send all the kids to college who qualify, or cure all the illnesses that plague us. But small jobs and private incomes do the trick. The little finger, often overlooked but actually the strongest finger of the hand, represents this rule.

I like Ruxin’s succinct summary of his cardinal rules, and the mnemonic aids are excellent (though I personally would have used the strong thumb to represent the powerful market and the weak pinky to represent starvation). Since they are the product of many years of experience, they are not to be taken lightly.

At the same time, I wonder to what extent the rules are biased because of Ruxin’s own background and experiences. For example, given that he feels the need to apologize for what might seem like cultural imperialism, and feels that the power of the market is overlooked, I surmise that he is self-conscious about defending what might sound like politically conservative ideas. However, the rule I am most uncertain about is Rule Three, regarding corruption. It might seem obvious that one should be intolerant of corruption. On the other hand, it might also seem obvious that one should be intolerant of human rights abuses. Oddly, in the book, Ruxin barely mentions Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, even though Kagame looms large everywhere in Rwanda. When he does mention Kagame, it is to approve of Kagame’s strong stance on corruption. No mention is made of the poor grades given to Kagame by many human rights organizations, of the accusations of his intolerance of political opponents (including rumored assassinations), of his controversial involvement in the First and Second Congo Wars, or of his flat-out rejection of any suggestions by independent agencies that Rwanda’s poverty rate might not be decreasing as fast as the official numbers suggest. If the low corruption is due in part to a strong leader who violates human rights and twists the facts, do we turn a blind eye? Conversely, if we recognize that we live in an imperfect world, can we do anything to help countries suffering from corruption beyond telling them to “take a hike”? This question is more urgent in Haiti than in Rwanda, since ranks Haiti 161st out of 180 for corruption, compared with Rwanda, which ranks 48th.

In addition to his rules, Ruxin’s book is valuable because of his honesty about things that did not work. For example, after an early successful harvest using high-yield maize, Ruxin realized that they were benefiting from what might be called beginner’s luck: The maize required more rain than could be reasonably expected in that region, especially given climate change trends. The following harvest was pitiful because the anticipated rains did not come. Disaster was averted only when Ruxin realized that he should trust a competent and knowledgeable local, Donald Ndahiro, over international experts, and switch to a more suitable crop—disease-resistant cassava that required less water and was familiar to local farmers.

Another fascinating incident concerns a failed attempt to start a pomegranate business.

One of my colleagues—who would later become the president of the World Bank—has quipped for years that there should be a journal of development failures, which are more instructive than success stories. The pomegranate experience would be one such story. The consultants hired by the US African Development Foundation in Kigali got deeply engaged with the pomegranate co-op while Alissa and I were in the States having our second child, baby Elodie. The lead consultant thought that the co-op workers should be paid for preparing the land, multiplying the stock, and overseeing the office. Instantly, the US funds became the harvest and the co-op’s president took control of all financial transactions. Those who were not getting paid refused to help plant or prune. It became about the job and the money in hand, not about the future of the community. The co-op’s president picked favorites, set up a phony procurement group, and started bleeding the funds. Anger doomed the project, and it was mostly abandoned, with about two hectares of perfectly planted trees becoming unproductive shrubs.

But let me conclude this review on a positive note by quoting Ruxin’s upbeat closing paragraphs.

And Heaven, too, is a model we will expand where and when we can. Can Heaven pull together the critical components of a serious East African business—gourmet restaurant, training facility, and boutique bed and breakfast? We hope so. Imagine Heaven Kampala, Heaven Nairobi, Heaven Dar es Salaam. Although you would think that those more developed nations would be awash in restaurants like ours, we’re constantly reminded that they need a piece of Heaven, too.

At the end of the day, with the equatorial sun setting on this beautiful land, it is the businesspeople, donors, investors, and activists who, like us, really can see the end of poverty on our beautiful planet. It is within reach now. There is no reason for cynicism or negativity, which only slows down what might be done. There is every reason to share in the joy that comes from optimism, and from action, from every one of us.

Posted January 2020

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