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Afghanistan: Learning from Rwanda

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Are there lessons for Afghanistan from Rwanda? Fifteen years ago Rwanda was completely devastated. Close to a million people had been slaughtered in a genocide implemented by the Hutu-led government. Infrastructure was destroyed; hate and fear dominated. While the genocide ended in 1994, cross border raids from Eastern Congo, led by organizers of the genocide, continued for close to a decade. Yet in 2009, Rwanda is being recognized as a leader in economic, political and social development on the continent of Africa. What can policymakers and government leaders learn from Rwanda's experience that could be applied in Afghanistan?

At the end of the genocide, the new government in Rwanda had to deal with close to a million people who had participated in some way in the genocide-- a much greater portion of the population participated in the genocide, then there are Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan. The most serious criminals were tried in national or international courts. A local process called Gacaca is being used to deal with less serious crimes and is focused on justice as well as reconciliation. At the end of the genocide, once security was established, the government used an indigenous process called Ubudehe to ask people what kind of society they wanted and what they would need to get there. The result was a document called Vision 2020. This strategic plan recognizes the key roles of information technology, access to education and health care, and gender equity in reducing poverty and insecurity and improving lives. Rwanda also drew on another indigenous process called Imihigo to establish a performance-based government system that requires leader to declare what they will accomplish in a certain period of time. These leaders are held accountable for their commitments. This new model of governance is inclusive, transparent, empowers the poor and holds leaders accountable for improving the well being of people in their districts. Ubudehe and Imihigo, results-based performance for governance, are not only making a difference but are replicable in every country of the world.

In 2009, much of the country is wired with fiber optics. Education is free for all students through grade nine and students are gaining access to the world's knowledge through the Internet. Rwanda has the highest proportion of women in the Parliament and Imihigo is in place. These last two accomplishments-holding leaders accountable, and the fact that many of these leaders are women may be a big part of why Rwanda has advanced so quickly.

Are any of the elements that have led to Rwanda's progress in place in Afghanistan-where President Obama has just committed more American troops and treasure? Afghanistan is a place of war and great economic, political and social insecurity. It a very fragile state that has been mired in conflict for over three decades-since the Soviet invasion of 1979. Its economy is based on narcotics-not unlike Colombia's in the 1980s. While women's lives have improved since the time of the Taliban, serious gender inequities persist. Like Rwanda, Afghanistan has an indigenous process of conflict-resolution that could contribute to both democratization and improving women's lives at the grass roots but without security and a commitment to human rights, these processes are ineffective. President Obama has just committed 30,000 additional American troops to strengthen Afghanistan's security forces and slow the Taliban's momentum. It is very unclear what impact these additional troops will have on establishing security. What else could the US be doing now--short of nation building-- to ensure that country has a chance of replicating Rwanda's progress?

With a far smaller commitment of resources compared to the military build up, the US could commit to rebuilding schools, ensure that girls are attending them, and connect them to the Internet. We could start entrepreneurship programs for the farmers growing opium and at least expose Afghanistan's leaders to performance-based governance. Sending Afghan leaders to the US for university-level education--especially those in the opposition-- would ensure more of them had an advanced education and understood our democratic society. It may sound far-fetched, but progress in any of these areas would help to build a sustainable foundation in Afghanistan.

Margee Ensign's book Rwanda: History and Hope, co-authored with Tulane University Professor William Bertrand, will be published on December 27.