Hierarchy of Needs

Imagine you are the president of a war-ravaged country. One third of your population is either dead or a refugee, of the survivors 75,000 are orphaned, 50% of children have stopped their schooling, 500,000 women are victims of rape, and economic growth is slumped by 50% with inflation reaching 64%. The genocide has “left absolutely nothing”[12]. What do you do? How do you rebuild your nation? Where do you start? I believe that the heart of Kagame’s strategy lies in the theory put forth by Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, on the “Hierarchy of Needs”.

Malsow’s hierarchy of needs is essentially a pyramid of 5 levels dictating and prioritizing what an individual needs to be psychologically healthy, happy, and achieve full potential. Maslow proposes that it is only after you have fulfilled your “basic” needs, the base of the pyramid, that you can strive to pursue “higher” ones.


We apply this line of logic on a larger scale to Rwanda when analyzing Kagame’s approach to leading his country’s transformation as head of state. We suggest that President Kagame, “Rwanda’s Rebel Reformer”, has used a similar pyramid (with 4 levels instead of 5) to rebuild Rwanda after the genocide. Given the context of the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, Kagame must first address his citizens’ most dire needs and develop the core foundations of the nation, before he can address and implement “higher” needs, like legitimate democratic systems and western conceptions of human rights.

Liberties aren’t so important in these places, the argument goes, because who can enjoy freedom of speech or freedom of the press when everyone is killing one another?” [5]

“I can only talk about liberty if there is stability” [11]

Perhaps it is possible to promote all levels of needs in a country like Rwanda. But if Kagame has succeeded in promoting the basic ones, can we excuse him for violating higher ones? Not all leaders are perfect, but in the context of Rwanda’s socio-economic landscape and the fact that Kagame is on the right track to building Rwanda’s pyramid from bottom up, is that enough for him to be a role model for African leadership?


Related Ted Talk: The leaders who ruined Africa, and the generation who can fix it