I felt somewhat fortunate to be in Rwanda recently as the nation prepared to mark the 20th anniversary of the civil war and genocide that killed more than 800,000 people in 1994. The government planned an elaborate set of events and invited regional, global and UN leaders, and friends of Rwanda to commemorate the unspeakable horrors that forever altered the nation’s history and to reflect on the nation’s unity, growth and stability as it journeys into the future.
I was last in Rwanda exactly four years ago and I am just amazed at the remarkable achievements that this tiny, landlocked nation of ten million people has accomplished. Over the last decade, poverty rate has been halved; GDP per capita doubled; and the economy has averaged per capita growth of around eight percent.
Health statistics are even more impressive. Over the years, Rwanda has dramatically accelerated the trend of progress on all key indicators including infant mortality, under-five mortality, maternal mortality and immunization coverage. It has one of the highest numbers of people on AIDS treatment in Africa, and their multi-drug resistant TB treatment approach is held up as a model that other countries come to learn from.
But many challenges remain. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy but over-population, small land sizes, inefficient farming techniques, and poor post-harvest handling and storage facilities make the productivity and growth of the sector problematic. Public sector expenditure and economic diversification are also constrained by lack of access to energy, insufficient human capital, and high transportation costs.
External funding still accounts for more than 40% of the government budget. But, over the years, Rwanda used the steady and generous inflow of domestic and external resources to strengthen the country system, including public finance and procurement, social and financial protection mechanisms for the poor, improving food security and the health system. In doing all this, Rwanda often designed its own brand of reforms and customized models, staying away from donor funds and looking realistically at how best to balance sustainability and equity. Most of these reforms focused on results, and results attracted more funding, both domestic and external.
But what lessons, if any, can we learn from Rwanda?
Perhaps the most important lessons are in the realm of servant leadership, discipline and transparency in public governance, taming corruption, promoting citizen participation and putting people first, and a relentless focus on results. In Rwanda, villagers are empowered to hold government and civic administrators accountable, and it’s all planned and conducted in public. Politicians, civic administrators and public servants have clear performance targets that they need to meet and report on, and they are given resources for implementation.
I am an admirer of President Paul Kagame, and here is why. He has often been accused of political repression and criticized for his authoritarian regime. But under his leadership: life expectancy has doubled in the past decade, the vaccination rate for children stands at about 90%, and health facilities are spread to villages; it takes six hours to obtain a license to open new business.
His administration has also established security of the type that is unseen in many other places. The Rwanda security alert report from the SOS, a global organization that issues travel advisories to international travelers puts it this way: “Rwanda is regarded as one of the safest countries in Africa for foreign visitors and while reliable statistics are hard to find, anecdotal evidence attests to crime levels roughly on a par with those in western European countries. This is partly due to a pervasive police presence, both covert and visible, and to a tightly controlled social fabric which, right down to the village or district level, encourages the observance of the law”.
A similar report on Kenya would make you think twice about even passing through the airport.
President Kagame has worked hard to stamp out corruption, an immoral practice that is increasingly being condemned across the world. And we all know what corruption is doing to the fabric of Kenyan society, including my own native County of Marsabit that hogs the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
In this respect, it’s important to point out that transparent governance works best when citizens have a clear idea of what their national or county government is doing and how they are spending tax revenues. It’s beyond me why a transparent, open government is so hard for Kenya to embrace – where decisions made by the government are known and the implementations of the decisions follow rules and procedures that are freely available and understandable to those who are affected directly by the decisions and even the public.
For example, introducing an arbitrary chicken tax without consulting chicken keepers is a breach of this kind of openness! Such openness does matter, not only to lessening corruption, but also to instilling legitimacy and making a society less vulnerable to conflict and destabilization. Let us all be very clear – there is a direct and extremely dangerous link between poor governance, corruption, extremism and conflict – and Kenya is currently dancing on this cliff.
Finally, this Kagame-man is a leader steering a steady course. He drives the changing culture of discipline, honesty, hard work and accountability that is growing roots in Rwandan society.
By Mohamed Adano, a native of Marsabit and a US based human capacity development consultant.