Hope in Rwanda

Imagine the developing country with the highest proportion of women legislators, where urban and rural schools are being wired to the Internet, and where the government is committed to developing a knowledge-based economy. Remarkably, the country is Rwanda.

Rwanda -- where for 100 days death came more quickly than during the Holocaust -- has begun a vast experiment to rebuild its society after a genocide that began fifteen years ago this month. It is difficult to overestimate what happened in Rwanda, which makes what is unfolding even more remarkable.

From April to July in 1994, close to a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were massacred in a state-sponsored genocide. UN peacekeepers in Rwanda tried to warn the international community of the impending violence. Instead, when the genocide erupted, the United Nations, at the insistence of the United States, not only blocked the deployment of additional UN forces that could have stopped the genocide, but lobbied to withdraw all UN troops. The UN's Chief of Peacekeeping at the time, Kofi Annan, ceded to US demands. The UN responded to the crisis by reducing its commitment and allowing the million to be murdered.

The Catholic Church also played a major role in the genocide. The Church was closely aligned with the genocidal regime of Hutu President Habyarimana and several priests and nuns have been implicated in assisting the murderers. The genocide was stopped when now President Paul Kagama and his Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) invaded from Uganda and took control of the country. Ten percent of the population had been murdered; agriculture and infrastructure were devastated, and except for a number of organizers of the genocide who managed to flee the country, the murderers remained in the country.

After World War II, the post-genocide countries of Europe had few survivors to integrate into their societies. This is not the case in present-day Rwanda where over 150,000 perpetrators of genocide are facing their survivors in community-based trials. Called gacaca (ga-cha-cha), and based on a traditional method of dealing with minor offenses, these community based trials are attempting to mete out justice to the perpetrators of the genocide and bring some sense of reconciliation to the survivors. Many of the perpetrators are being released into their communities - serving part of their sentences as community service. No society has ever attempted what this poor country is now facing -- reconstructing individual lives and rebuilding an economy and political structures while including many of those who participated in the genocide.

In fifteen years, the government and people of Rwanda have written a constitution, established free education for all children, and are rebuilding their economy. They can boast that they have more women in Parliament than any other country in the world. Perhaps the most remarkable changes in political structures and authority have occurred at the local level. In only fifteen years, central control has evolved into devolution of power to the lowest levels. Exclusion has become inclusion; voices are heard from the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable. It is far from perfect but it is building a culture of democracy and accountability. Rwandans call the process of determining needs and setting priorities, Imihigo.

Imihigo was a traditional ritual that occurred when a group of people came together and engaged publicly in activities that tested their bravery. The community, as well as the individual, was being tested. Now Imihigo means something quite different. It is a public declaration of what is valued and needed by individuals and communities and a commitment to achieve a specified set of goals. It starts with each family and moves up to the level of 100 families -- called umudugudu -- then through the cell, sector and district level where these needs and commitments become a contract that is signed by the Mayor of each district and the President of the Republic

The contract includes a set of measurable performance indicators for one year that the mayor is expected to achieve. The goals are set after extensive conversations with the local populations. District mayors engage their communities to understand what the needs are, how they relate to Vision 2020 and the Millennium Development Goals. Each IMIHIGO is unique but categorized in several areas: social protection, governance, health, education, economic development, agriculture, and justice.

IMIHIGO is a novel method for understanding what poor people want in their lives and ensuring to some degree that leaders respond to their needs. This is worth repeating. Rwanda is implementing a system that asks poor people to express their needs that are then developed into a compact with their leaders -- who are held accountable, by being removed from office by citizens if these needs are not met. This is not just a theory: I have watched it in action.

IMIHIGO is a story about accountability. At every level of government, leaders are being held accountable for their goals, objectives and performance. A feedback and accountability mechanism is built into leaders' performance contracts. Data for monitoring and evaluation for all major government projects are gathered by the National Bureau of Statistics and then transmitted to leaders from the grassroots to the Parliament and the President.

Rwanda's commitment to building a world-class, nation-wide statistical system was recognized by the World Bank in 2007. Every year the World Bank ranks all countries in the world on several dimensions of statistical capacity. Rwanda along with Nigeria showed the biggest improvement in performance moving from 23 in Africa in 2006 to 6 in 2007. There is not other developing country in the world that uses monitoring, evaluation, and accountability in this way. The story of IMIHIGO, results-based performance for governance, is one that is not only making a difference but is replicable in every country of the world.

Rwanda in 2009 is a story of committed, visionary, educated leaders, many who grew up outside of Rwanda, but who fought to stop the genocide and stayed to rebuild the country.

For Sub-Saharan Africa and for all poor developing countries, Rwanda is demonstrating a new model of development: a model that is unique and innovative in several respects. It is a country that has built a vision and a strategic plan with the active involvement of its poor citizens. It is a vision and a plan that recognizes the key roles of information technology, education, health, and gender equity. A country of a little over 9 million people, it is dealing with justice for the over 700,000 people involved in the genocide and reconciliation for the survivors. It is a vision that includes indigenous elements as well as drawing on the successful experiences of other countries that have moved from poor to prosperous.

In fifteen years, the government and people of Rwanda have developed a vision for their country, written a constitution, established free primary education for all children, and have experienced eight years of strong economic growth. The country is laying a foundation for information technology that will result, eventually, in much of the country being connected to the Internet. Women are involved, and in many fields dominate decision-making at the highest levels. This is a country that despite the savagery of the genocide, realizes that its people are its primary strength.

Fifteen years removed from a mass genocide that resulted in the deaths of nearly one million people, Rwanda is now a leader in achieving economic, political and social progress in this beleaguered continent, and today presents a model for hope, justice, innovation and human development.

This is the first in a series of four blogs that will focus on progress and challenges in Rwanda

Margee M. Ensign: Co- author of the forthcoming book, Rwanda: History and Hope