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Is Rwanda’s progress real, or is it just PR?

The country has audacious aspirations, perhaps too audacious for a country in its circumstances, as some would have it

Every so often one reads on social media that Rwanda’s progress doesn’t exist in reality and that the reported stories about the country are mere PR. Commentators often refer to the existence of a “PR Machine” that ostensibly sells the “hype.” But this is a myth. I know enough to say that Rwanda’s PR is bad. If it were any good, Rwanda’s story would serve as a source of inspiration for Africans grappling with how to shape the direction their countries take. In turn, they would identify with the country as their own.

Discussions about GDP are often the graveyard of Rwanda’s remarkable story, eliciting mockery by those who claim that its meagre GDP per capita is proof that nothing special is happening in the country and that everything is PR hype. Rwanda’s GDP per capita ($825) is not impressive. Here the country enjoys the company of other African countries such as Uganda ($885), Kenya ($2250) and Tanzania ($1100) and Burundi ($222).

Used as a basis for judgement, GDP tells a shallow story about a country and its transformation journey. That is why, like any good story, context is important. The growth in GDP measures a country’s cumulative productivity over time. This implies a baseline. It is common that the baseline for African countries is the period of self-governance and independence as a measure of national efforts after the “departure” of the colonialists. Hence, the 1960s serve as an important marker for when Africans began from “nothing.”

1962 is the year Rwanda initially began from nothing. But if 1962 marks a nothing point, then Ambassador Christine Nkulikiyinka’s description of Rwandan society in 1994 characterized a baseline that was below nothing.

“Over one million citizens had been killed, and two million more became refugees, mainly in neighbouring countries. About three hundred thousand children were orphaned, with most of them finding themselves thrown into the role of parents for their younger siblings. Around 250,000 women were widowed, many of them having endured unspeakable sexual violence at the hands of the killers of their loved ones. State coffers had been emptied by the fleeing genocidal regime, and 92% of the country’s budget had to depend on international aid. Inflation was soaring, reaching 60% in 1995, while the country’s infrastructure was practically non-existent. There was virtually no running water, electricity, working telephone lines, schools, hospitals, or health centres.”

This magnitude of destruction has begotten a Rwandan national consciousness that takes 1994 as the baseline against which national progress is now measured. One could also talk of a double consciousness that distinguishes between the older order underlain by an old ideology, to which some would like to cling, and the new emerging order embraced wholeheartedly by a younger generation, a story to return to another day.

There are grounds for arguing that the genocidal destruction that Rwanda experienced is what South Africa(ns) avoided in 1994 when they decided to build on the Apartheid baseline rather than destroy their society and contend with having to build anew. Had they experienced total destruction, perhaps South Africa’s GDP per capita figures would not be that different from Rwanda’s today.

Inside the GDP figures

In 2016, I watched Ugandan journalist, Andrew Mwenda, peek inside GDP figures and assert: “The things that Rwanda does cannot be explained within the nations of its income group”.  He underscored the country’s ability to get more bang out of its buck than any country in its income bracket when it came to public service delivery.

He explained further: “The government of Rwanda seeks legitimacy primarily from the delivery of public goods and services”, citing clean water, good roads, universal healthcare and education, among other public goods the country is able to offer its people. These services are made available because of the “expensive path” that Rwanda chose to take, but one that other countries in its circumstances avoid. While governments in many poor countries take the shortcut to stability by “seeking legitimacy through the cooptation of religious and ethnic leaders,” Rwanda accepted to pay the price by refusing to be held hostage by elite groups – ethnic, regional, religious, or otherwise.

Consequently, Mwenda argued, the country is regularly cited as one of the best-managed and safest countries in the world, alongside wealthier countries such as Qatar, Singapore, Finland, and others. This insight was possible because something unusual was happening: measuring progress that is obscured by an obsession with GDP figures. If Mwenda hadn’t been a regular and intellectually curious visitor to Rwanda, he would have easily dismissed Rwanda’s place among these countries as the PR machine at work.

It is astonishing that Rwanda’s PR Machine has not been banging on about these achievements all these years.  If it existed, surely this would have been something to highlight adnauseam to intellectually lazy critics armed with GDP figures as the basis for their assessment of how much progress Rwanda has made since 1994. Here then is proof that the said PR Machine is no more than a popular myth. But there’s more.

Grand aspirations

Rwanda also has audacious aspirations, perhaps too audacious for a country in its circumstances, as some would have it. Clearly, its GDP would suggest it shouldn’t be in the business of thinking, let alone dreaming, about building what is likely to be the largest airport in Africa, a Grand Prix racing track, MICE infrastructure to attract globally significant conferences. Nor even should it be partnering with global brands such as world famous football clubs (Arsenal and PSG) and sports associations (BAL) to support its tourism and budding sports industry, or pharmaceutical giants such as BioNTech to build end-to-end manufacturing facilities that will produce vaccines for the continent. Should it be constructing state-of-the-art hospitals to be a regional hub for the treatment of non-communicable diseases such as cancer? Should its military intervene in trouble spots such as the Central African Republic and Mozambique with a view to contributing to regional peace and enhancing intra-Africa cooperation? Should it channel money into huge investments in irrigation projects and climate change mitigation strategies? There is no shortage of critics claiming that these things are nothing but a waste of money, intended more for PR purposes than for the benefit of ordinary Rwandans.

The magnitude of the destruction inflicted on the country by the genocide should have broken its spirit. However, on the contrary, it nurtured a remarkable sense of urgency and clarity of purpose, that is rarely associated with under-developed countries, save perhaps for China, Singapore, Vietnam, and the like. These countries have registered exponential rather than linear progress. While Rwanda doesn’t have their kind of GDP figures, the gains it has registered against monumental destruction have engendered a sense of belief in the possible. “If we can make this much progress in 30 years imagine where we will be in 50 years,” some say with a deep sense of self assuredness. They see these grand ambitions as assurance that, like these Asian countries, Rwanda, too, is capable of exponential rather than linear progression.

It gives people the confidence that the future of their children will see them live better lives and that all they need to do is play their part in the pursuit of this dream. Older generations are already invested emotionally and materially. It is unsurprising that Rwanda is one of the top countries in Africa where young people studying overseas return home after graduation and other members of the diaspora community return to live and invest at home.

It is a bet on the self about the future. One will not find this kind of inspiration in GDP figures. Rwanda’s story should inspire Africans with similar aspirations. That, sadly, is not the case currently. What one sees in some cases is that it triggers negativity among Africans who should otherwise identify with it and seek to emulate it.

It is important to recognize that this story is unfolding in a country with a poor resource base both in material and human resources terms. Of importance here is its thin skills base, the outcome partly of its education system which continues to struggle to find its footing, not to forget that thousands of large numbers of skilled people were killed in the genocide, while others fled the country.

Recently, political scientist, Dr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, observed: “What has happened in Rwanda is evidence of creative thinking on the part of the RPF and its political partners. These are the lessons that the rest of us Africans should be learning from Rwanda.  These are not easy lessons to learn because the biggest challenge is that it involves a whole process of unlearning what we think we know about good governance and democracy.” The process of acknowledging Rwanda’s progress requires questioning foreign, usually patronizing prescriptions about development, democracy, and human rights.

Yet, Rwanda’s story of great possibilities will remain incomplete if it doesn’t inspire the rest of Africa to dream big. Had there been a coherent PR operation behind it, this story of possibilities would have resonated across the continent. That said, no PR can do better than an intellectual effort on the part of Africans to discover for themselves whatever is hidden behind the aggressive vilification by Western media, NGOs, and even academia, of developing countries that choose to pursue their ambitions on their own terms.

When you come across swarms of Rwandans on social media who show remarkable eagerness to fight anyone given to questioning or dismissing this broad dream or who won’t stop attacking the people behind it, it is not some kind of machine at work. If ever there had been a PR machine, Rwandans who dare to dream alongside their leadership would not have had to take it upon themselves to fight their country’s corner in the way they do.


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