Progress Incorporated: The dominant development paradigm in Rwanda is at a crossroads

It must always come as a shocker to anyone whenever Rwanda is declared the most unequal country in East Africa. The country is a model for development and its supporters vouch for its progressive pro-business attitude, zero tolerance for corruption, and the government’s eagerness to partner with others in achieving its priorities.  

Its model of: strong leadership as guided by President Paula Kagame and the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF); decentralization program to empower the grass roots; free markets orientation; private sector expansion; and the management or alignment of activities by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with the Rwandan government priorities, have been viewed as effective in lifting the people out of the destruction caused by the 1994 genocide to possibilities of a new era.

Yet, it seems that there could be a semblance of inherent systemic or structural flaws that need to be addressed. The overriding thinking that the results achieved are all that matters in creating an accountable system, whose developing infrastructure connects a landlocked country that attracts investors is welcome although not absolute.

Nothing is ever perfect especially in the situation of reconstructing a country that experienced near obliteration of its socio-economic and political fabric. Rwanda’s unrelenting focus to get the fundamentals right should acknowledge that even with the great strides being made, some of its people may be left behind because of existing inefficiencies that are developing a rich and poor gap. So much so that the Rwanda Reconciliation Barometer report has interestingly, concluded that it is not ethnicity rather “economic cleavages” that divide Rwandan society today.

The Rwandan development model has generally been focused on tackling poverty through ensuring inclusion of people from the post-conflict doldrums of poor living standards into prosperity that is free of ethnic bigotry. In this aspect its efforts have proved noble with the tremendous successes it has made in education and health.

However, it must now consciously ensure fairness in the spread of this fulfillment that not only looks at uplifting the disadvantaged but also guarantees sustainable redistribution of wealth so that it does not get concentrated within a tiny segment of the populace. This is clearly more than a policy question and demands incisive political arguments that do not succumb to the laziness of using ethnic differences in mobilizing for change, as observed by perpetrators of genocide ideology.

Essentially, the Rwandan project is best captured by Dambisa Moyo’s argument that improvements in [African country] economic profile[s] have been largely achieved in spite of (nominal) democracy, not because of it. This idea is constantly critiqued because of its reliance on a dominant party system that is perceived as heavy handed towards any criticism of its policies.

Yet, going by the testimonies of the international community this seems as an ideal African standard that can assure personal liberty (as determined by the country’s context), private property with contractual rights, enforced rule of law [not necessarily through democracy], accountability, intolerance towards corruption and an optimally constituted administration to govern.

Nevertheless, the impatience in dealing with low growth, obstinate poverty, moribund wages and obdurate unemployment rates that denies many work or any really fulfilling prospects of progress for individuals and communities, becomes defeatist if autocratic options are adopted.   

This is because such options limit the necessary ‘culture’ needed for competition, moderation, negotiation and compromise in developing a self reliant country as desired in Rwanda. Limited patience for criticism means outright brushing aside of both unconstructive and beneficial voices. This could result in a loss of necessary confidence or belief to execute Vision 2020.

What could be seen as willingness out of patriotism could actually be coerced compliance with existing authority, its agenda and priorities. If indeed the inequality question is to be addressed fully it should not only be an issue of raising the lowest to a level in order to bridge the gap between an emerging group of “haves” and the ever-present “haves-nots” but it should also ensure the trickle down benefits actually do take place. This is especially so as to maintain the social cohesion to avoid slipping back in the midst of its complex history and relations with its comparatively unstable neighbor in the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.).

Rwanda is surely on the right path by ensuring those living in rural areas are both formally and informally educated and equipped with practical skills enabling them to take advantage of the opportunities brought by the economic development their country is going through.

Its promotion of innovation and investing in people’s talent is a worthy investment for the future. However, transforming lives of the majority poor and vulnerable, so they enjoy their economic rights and are protected against actors with more resources that could exploit their economic weakness demands addressing inefficiencies in what is a working system so they can freely determine their fates.

Is Rwanda struggling with challenges attached with its success? Could it be asked whether the reconstruction it has taken to rebuild the country is actual development? Structural or systemic issues such as access to land or the widening gap between the rich and the poor could only make a fragile society susceptible to a return to violence.

Such a context would see ethnic divisions or grievance with the leadership surface as well embedded explanation bringing out issues such as the fact that as of 2011 the country’s official minimum wage had never been unchanged since 1974 at RWF 100 a day.

Going by the criticism that explicitly targets the leadership the country is facing its own version of headwinds. Despite proceeding apace with its goals there could be some frustration with not achieving the aims of Vision 2020. This is especially because various networks of influence see no advantage in consolidating into overall policy that is driven by the Presidency and is independent of ‘developmental’ neo-patrimonial structure embedded in the give or/and take of politics characterized in African states.

As seen from the challenges faced in the formation of a single business focused interest group such as the Private Sector Federation (PSF) the management of democracy for Rwanda should offer an opportunity to reflect strategically on how to handle the problems associated with its accomplishments as it moves into the future.

It should just give you a good sense of the recognition (after some pushing) that the Rwanda authorities have less control over the outcomes of their plans and decisions than they believe or project. A taste of some scenarios building processes could hopefully liberate minds in thinking more creatively, systemically (rather than sectorally or administratively), and flexibly. It will give a chance to 'windtunnel' policies and visions against a variety of plausible futures (focused on urbanization and rural development).

A version of this article appeared in the second issue of SID Greater Horn Quarterly (GHQ) in 2014.


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