Saturday, October 4, 2014

Civic Engagement in Development

4th Oct 2014

On the day after I arrived, Martin told me the latest news which was buzzing around the town: the annual development report from the National Government was in, and out of 30 Districts, our District (Ngoma) had come in 2nd Place!  (A District is the political sub-division of a Province; it is divided into two lower levels of government, the Sector and the Cell.)  

This is one peculiar sort of news which one does not find in a so-called “1st world” or “developed” country like the United States.  But as far as I can tell, it’s also not the kind of news one would hear in most “developing countries,” either.  It demonstrates something very special about today’s Rwanda: its determination and diligence in pursuing better lives for its people, and, most remarkably, the participation of its citizens in that endeavor.

Let me put in perspective what a big deal this development stuff is to Rwandans.  This past Monday, Martin and I left the house after lunch and walked up to the soccer (erm, football) field near the Cell office.  There was a small crowd lounging on the lawn under a large leafy tree, and a group of men setting up a wide white tent shelter and chairs beneath.  One hour later, the gathering grew to a mass of hundreds, perhaps one or two thousand people, dressed in traditional and otherwise formal clothes.  They had arrived for a ceremony to celebrate the 2nd Place Award.  We waited for another hour, as the District leaders made the rounds to all the other Sectors under their authority and their celebrations.  We sang and chanted as we waited, of course— song after song, chant after chant.  Charismatic figures emerged from the sea of people to receive the microphone and lead the songs, shouting into it and causing the same fuzzy unpleasantries from the amplifier that I suffer at church every Sunday.  It was delightful.  To me, their joy and singing makes American culture of community gatherings (practically devoid of such inhibited shared excitement) seem impoverished.

Finally, the government leaders arrived in a sleek silver automobile, and triumphantly marched through the teeming mass brandishing an impressive trophy towards the sky.  They situated themselves in the middle, making speeches of congratulations on the achievements of the year, encouraging the efforts for the coming year, and ceremoniously signing contracts of new development goals.  

All the pomp and circumstance of this event was only a microcosm of the widespread participation that goes into the tireless pursuit of development in Rwanda.  I learned from Martin and my friends Edward and Emmanuel that, at President Kagame’s request in 2010, every family keeps a notebook in which they record their ambitions for their own home (i.e. closer access to water, electricity) and their ability to progress towards the goal (i.e. how much money or labor they can put towards the project).  The representatives of the Cell government then visit each family, either in their home or in well-attended town hall meetings, and aggregate the ambitions and progress information from every family.  The Cells report to the Sectors, the Sectors to the Districts, and the Districts make proposals of District-wide projects to the National Government.  The national government allocates its budget to support these projects (i.e. building roads, electricity lines, water projects) according to its limited budget, the greatest priorities, and the self-reliance of the localities in question.  The National and District Government leaders develop a set of specific, measurable targets to achieve by the following July.  The districts with the highest percentage of progress towards their goal are rewarded, as Ngoma District was this week.

What’s really remarkable to me is not the government process, though: it’s the visible and passionate grassroots participation of humble, regular, neighborly people, and how they use their government as a facilitator.  Edward and Emmanuel explained offered a personal example: the people living on their road had no electricity, and so held a neighborhood meeting to discuss the costs and how much each person could contribute.  Their money was insufficient, but they went to the Sector government with their proposal anyway.  The government agreed to finance the rest of the project, and constructed the power lines within the week. It’s a rather rose-colored anecdote (and I intend to keep my ears open for less savory stories), but at the very least it demonstrates the Rwandan public’s deep sense of trust in the government.

Indeed, Rwandans have so much faith in their government that (according to my friends) they willingly give money to the government, above and beyond their taxes.  Apparently, 30% of Rwanda’s national budget is gifted from its own citizens— even its poorest ones— in the form of 500RWF bills (less than $1USD) and even sacks of beans.  I’m still skeptical; but as I see endless evidence of a government that delivers (smooth paved roads nationwide, tin roofs on every single house, more and more electricity, a friendly environment for foreign and domestic businesses), the possibility seems ever more likely.

I don’t think Americans will ever trust their government as much as Rwandans seem to, but what if Americans were as inclined towards civic engagement?  What if we also had well-attended neighborhood meetings, pooled our money to get stuff done, and sand and chanted our hearts out on the soccer field?  How would life be different?  I, for one, think it’s worth finding out.

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