Rwanda: ‘Citizens Play Central Role In Making Democracy Work’—Author Myers

Standard had an exclusive interview with Sondra Myers, the editor of The New Rwanda: Prosperity and the public good, a handbook constituted of essays written by eminent figures in the field of Democracy and leadership such as: the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Clement Alexander Price, and Bishop John Rucyahana.

Basing on this handbook she invites all Rwandans to actively participate in the National conversation, as a way to confront and solve together challenges that may rise in the society. What propelled you to write this handbook and why did you choose to call it “The new Rwanda: Prosperity and the public good”?

In April of 2008, with the cooperation of the OTF Economic Development Consulting Group, and with the endorsement of His Excellency President Paul Kagame, I organized and moderated a round table discussion, “The Role of Universities in Building a Culture of Civic Responsibility, Interdependence and Prosperity.”

One of the recommendations that grew out of that meeting was “engaging citizens in their own communities in discussions of public issues, values and policies by creating a ‘National Conversation on Prosperity and the Public Good’.”

From past experience I knew that having a text for such a conversation is essential—at least as a starting point to the discussion. Why was the preface written by the president of Rwanda? The President endorsed the project as it was presented to him by our mutual friend, Michael Fairbanks, founder of the OTF group and the Seven Fund.

He believed it was useful and in fact when he saw the handbook, he immediately requested a translation into Kinyarwanda, which we did. What is the core reason of your interest in the national conversation?

Over the past twelve years, as countries were shedding colonial powers or authoritarian or dictatorial leaders and seeking democracy, it became increasingly clear to me that citizens play a central role in making democracy work and that becoming a citizen—developing both the will and the skills to do so—is difficult when one has been a subject all of his or her life.

Hence I got the idea of creating handbooks (My first was Democracy is a Discussion: Civic Engagement in Old and New Democracies) to be used as text for discussing such matters in formal and informal learning settings. After talking to prominent Rwandans and other important people who follow closely what happens in Rwanda, what overall view did you get about Rwanda?

I have the sense that Rwandans are looking forward to and willing to invest in a bright future. There is a lot of positive energy—a can-do mentality—and, at the same time, a lack of corruption—that makes working here both productive and enjoyable. Is it probable that you might have missed out another image of Rwanda perceived by small Rwandans?

Yes, I do not claim to be working with all Rwandans—and I am well aware that all are not moving forward as quickly as those who are well educated and reasonably prosperous.

However, I think that working with people in leadership, particularly educators, is valuable—and something that I have considerable experience with.

Others whom I hold in high regard work at the grass roots level, often with people who are suffering from poverty, disease and serious post-genocide traumas. “You cannot sustain a prosperous economy if it is one that fosters entrepreneurship for the few but leaves the rest in poverty.” You highlighted this aspect, is it in any way referring to your observations of the new Rwanda?

It is an observation I make in my own country and in every country I know.

One of the most chronic and ever-growing pathologies in all our countries is the growing gap between the rich and the poor. It can only lead to serious conflict—even revolution—and cannot be resolved without addressing the problem head-on.

The American pledge of allegiance ends with “One nation—indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.” I firmly believe that all nations should strive for that goal. After analyzing how different people compare and contrast Rwanda to their respective societies, in your opinion what assets does Rwanda have that can help it acquire all those lessons put forward in the essays within the realms of democracy, economic prosperity, or civil society?

Safety, lack of or minimum of corruption, strong and forward looking leadership, people of good disposition and a strong work ethic. Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention the post-genocide recovery.

Naturally there are lasting traumas and memories—but Rwanda has risen out of the ashes of the tragedy and is standing straight—ready to build a more sane and humane future. It is almost miraculous! “In my view, the most precious right that an individual can have is the right to be responsible for the public good.” does this convey your own experience and how?

This statement conveys my belief that in the realm of rights—there is no right more satisfying to oneself and none more valuable to our societies than the right to be responsible for the public good. As we look around the world, there are not many who possess that right. It is above all, in my view, worth striving for. What was the feedback of the first edition of the handbook by Rwandans of all levels?

As I mentioned earlier, I have worked for the most part with educated people who are above the poverty level—so I don’t really have feedback from the vast majority of Rwandans. What message would you like to pass to the readers of our website

I propose that people read the essays and discuss them with friends, family and colleagues; see them not as gospel but as “food for thought.” You can agree or disagree or have no opinion about them—but acknowledge that it is important for all of us to see ourselves as custodians of our societies. It is the only way that we can discourage outside or inside tyrants from controlling our lives.

Sondra Myers is senior fellow for international, Civic and cultural Projects at the University of Scranton, her works encompass:

Co-editor of the Pluralist Paradigm: Democracy and Religion in the 21st Century (2006)
The Interdependence Handbook (2004) -Editor of the Democracy Reader (2002)
The Democracy is a Discussion handbook (19996 &1998)

In a bid to enhance Rwandans to conduct their own national conversations, will be publishing essays and respective discussion questions retrieved from The New Rwanda: Prosperity and the public good handbook.



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