Why other countries should emulate Rwanda
By Amaka Okechukwu Posted On 26 Mar, 2013
Almost two decades ago, Rwanda was in the throes of genocide, one that would wipe out an estimated 10 percent of its population in three months. At the end of the genocide, the image of Rwanda was one of suffering and corpses being eaten by dogs, and the government coffers were practically empty. What is extremely remarkable is that today the story is completely different. Rwanda is now a poster child of development, a country on a rapid rise and one that other countries are increasingly looking to emulate. The leader of the country, Paul Kagame, is the visionary credited with this economic transformation. President Kagame is indeed a very divisive figure and people seem to either idolize him or despise him. This has led his detractors to discredit the economic transformation taking place in Rwanda. However the numbers speak for themselves:
  • The GDP per capita of the country has almost tripled from $139 to $370 (constant 2000 US$, from 1994 to 2011)
  • Rwanda has seen exceptional growth rates averaging 8.1 percent since 2005

However as we all know, in the world of commodity booms and kleptocrats, GDP is increasingly a bad metric for measuring the quality of life in countries, which is why it is important to look at other metrics:
  • In the 5 years from 2006 to 2011, Rwanda (mainly by focusing on the agricultural sector) has been able to lift roughly 1 million people out of poverty. They have also reduced the number of those living in extreme poverty.
  • The number of people enrolled in primary schools increased from 86 to 91 percent from 2005 to 2010, one of the highest rates in Africa.
  • The maternal mortality has almost halved between 2005 and 2010
  • The prevalence of HIV has decreased from 5.6 percent of population in 1994 to 2.9 percent of the population in 2012
  • The city of Kigali has been given many awards for its cleanliness, peacefulness and security
  • Women held 52% of all parliamentary seats in 2008, the highest in the World.
Improvements have also been made in business:
  • Registering a business in Rwanda takes only a few hours, not the months that it used to, and Rwanda is the 9th easiest place to start a business in the world.
There are many criticisms of the economic growth in Rwanda. One popular one is that the country is dependent on foreign aid and that the growth is therefore unsustainable and dependent on the whims of foreign policy. Another is that the growth is only occurring in Kigali. It is important to examine these criticisms.

Rwanda’s growth is very dependent on foreign aid funding, to the bane of the current government. Indeed given the fact that the government coffers were empty in 1994, the government didn’t have much of a choice but to bring out their bowl and accept the vast flows of aid channeled from countries trying to soothe their conscience. However this dependency has been reducing dramatically over the years. In 1994, development aid made up 94 percent of the GNI, in 2011 it stood at 19 percent. This reduction has not come by chance but through the deliberate efforts of the current government which is desperate to get off the proverbial foreign aid feeding bottle.

Criticisms that the growth is only taking place in Kigali do not seem to be true. Economic transformation is taking place in the countryside especially in the agricultural sector and this has been why so many poor people have been lifted out of poverty. While the countryside does not have the same city-like appeal of Kigali, there was been growth nonetheless.

When one sees a good thing, it is always good to try and understand it. Rwanda is a country that other countries should look to. In my opinion, there are two key factors that make Rwanda stand out and that have led to the progress.

The first is the clear vision of the current government through their vision 2020 and their Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS). In the present time, many countries have mastered the art of creating impressive strategy documents that are never executed. What makes Rwanda different is the fact that the vision is actually implemented.

The second factor is the focus on local solutions to their problems. At the height of the genocide, the international community abandoned Rwanda and the UN withdrew their troops, leaving a meager 250 or so soldiers to simply observe the genocide. In an interesting twist, the silence of the international community during the genocide helped to do one thing, it made the Rwandans realize that solutions must come from within, and that external help was uncertain.

This meant that even with all the donor funding that flooded Rwanda, the government insisted on using the money strictly on their terms. And this has led to a host of local initiatives. For example:
  • The Girinka program, Rwanda’s version of a welfare program, that was introduced in 2006. Instead of giving cash transfers to the poor, the government makes a one-time payment of an asset – a dairy cow – which is used for milk (for sale and consumption), as a source of manure fertilizer and so on.
  • Another is the Imihigo program which is a contract between the Mayors and President Kagame. Under this contract the Mayors publicly sign contracts on what they will achieve during their term. They are measured against these promises and non-performers are replaced.
  • The Gacaca – the people’s court in Rwanda. Gacaca means to sit down and discuss an issue, and the courts were set up to clear the backlog of cases related to the genocide. Until it was closed in 2012, an estimated 2 million people were tried in the courts. While the courts were sometimes criticized for not being fair in some cases, it has also been credited with spearheading the healing process post the genocide.
While it is important to highlight the successes of Rwanda, there is no doubt that they still have a lot of work to do. A key challenge is the state of infrastructure in Rwanda. Transportation costs are very high and the electricity tariffs in Rwanda are a lot higher than those of their neighbors. This means that they will find it very difficult to compete in the manufacturing sector.

Rwanda still has a narrow export based which needs to improve. And the country needs to boost its tax revenue. For example, even though 98 percent of the companies operating in the private sector are SMEs, these SMEs contribute less than 3 percent of all tax revenue.

Moving into the political realm, there is a lot of political tension that, if unchecked, can spill into the economic realm and set back the economic progress. Politically, the country is run with a tight fist, political opponents of President Kagame are sometimes mysteriously found dead, the press is not free and journalists seem to be genuinely scared to speak out against Kagame’s regime. While the distinction does not technically exist anymore, “Tutsis” still take up the majority of government positions.

The current political challenges raise several questions: Does economic progress have to come first before social freedom? Do other countries need a benevolent dictator or a benevolent president with little opposition? They also beg the question: Who is the real Kagame? In a recent afrimind interview, DRC expert Mvemba Dizolele said that Kagame is both impressive on the positive on the negative. Which brings us to the final and most important question: what will happen to the economy of Rwanda post Kagame (that is assuming that he does leave in 2017 as planned)? Is this success story sustainable?

Regardless of the questions, one thing is clear: Rwanda is no longer a story of genocide; this is now a story of a country that has emerged from the pits of a heinous tragedy and is now on a remarkable rise. Other countries should take note.

Amaka is the founder and Executive Director of afrimind. She can we reached on twitter @afrimindteam or via email on amaka@afrimind.org

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