Rwanda's cleanliness signals a broader developmental agenda


Rwanda has made remarkable progress in health and other domains over the last 25 years. This is usually attributed to a determined national government under single-minded leadership. On a recent study visit to the country, it became clear that there are two important local drivers of development as well: community participation in regular civic campaigns and a managed approach to urbanisation. This has fostered social solidarity and helped to create more efficient and liveable cities, writes Prof Ivan Turok.

An informal settlement in Kigali, Rwanda
Photo: Prof Ivan Turok

Rwanda has become a poster child for all-round progress in Africa, against all odds. This small, agrarian country of 12 million people is landlocked, hilly and lacks mineral deposits. Nearly a million people were killed in a notorious genocide in 1994. There has been a stunning recovery since then, with GDP growing at 6-8% a year since 2003, one of the highest rates in the world. The proportion of the population below the poverty line has fallen sharply from 57% in 2006 to 39% in 2017.

Rapid economic growth has been accompanied by impressive progress in health and other aspects of human development. Child mortality has been cut from 181 per 1000 births in 2000 to only 38 in 2017. Life expectancy has risen steeply from 48 in 2000 to 67 in 2017. The prevalence of underweight children has been halved from 20% in 2000 to 9% in 2017.

These striking health outcomes have been matched by similar improvements in education. For example, the proportion of children completing primary school has risen from 23% in 2000 to 76% in 2017.

The received wisdom is that Rwanda’s remarkable all-round development is attributable to a determined national government under visionary leadership. President Paul Kagame has provided central direction and built strong state institutions implementing rigorous performance disciplines.
The focus of his modernising agenda has been on the long-term, collective interest, with zero-tolerance of corruption and mismanagement. The government has also pursued an expansionary fiscal stance by borrowing heavily to invest in health, education and public infrastructure.

Yet, Rwanda’s resurgence has not been a one-sided story of centralised planning and top-down control. Sustained and inclusive development in any country cannot be driven exclusively from the centre. Progress is rooted in the capacity of individuals and institutions to adapt to their context, overcome obstacles and unlock opportunities.

The existence of bottom-up processes that respond to popular concerns and harness the energy of the people has been neglected in most accounts of Rwanda’s success. These processes are being studied by the HSRC in a major research project with the University of Rwanda and other partners.

Community participation
For visitors to Rwanda, one of the most striking features of its urban areas is the clean streets and tidy pavements. The neat, well-maintained city centres, suburbs and informal settlements are unusual in many other parts of Africa, where it is common to see litter lying around and piles of uncollected waste. Many African leaders have applauded the spotless public spaces and wondered how to replicate this achievement. It is often asserted that stringent laws and harsh fines for littering are the key.

But there is a more important reason for Rwanda’s clean cities. Making places hygienic isn’t just a fetish for cleanliness. It has been an essential mechanism for mass participation as part of the drive for socio-economic reconstruction. Widespread involvement in regular clean-up campaigns has become a social custom.

Once a month, every adult is expected to contribute to communal projects, from repairing roads to clearing choked ditches and enhancing the environment. Such activity also includes building and maintaining public facilities and infrastructure, such as clinics and schools. Everyone from top politicians and senior officials to ordinary citizens dons their overalls and pitches in.

Projects are organised and monitored by local neighbourhood committees. Funding for any materials and equipment required often comes from residents who can afford to make a contribution.

This kind of home-grown self-reliance is particularly valuable in a context where state resources are stretched.

Repurposing umuganda
Kagame has built on a long tradition of umuganda to forge a sense of national cohesion through community service. Umuganda literally means people coming together for a common purpose. The idea is to foster a spirit of collective responsibility and civic pride by working hand-in-hand on practical local schemes.

The initiative stems from the 1994 genocide, when nearly 1-million Rwandans were wiped out over a three-month period. During that disastrous episode, leaders exhorted ethnic Hutus to do umuganda and kill minority Tutsis and Hutu sympathisers.

Repurposing the concept of umuganda is helping to undo the legacy of social division and motivate citizens to get involved in collective actions that promote trust and belonging. Additional measures help to increase safety and hygiene in public spaces, such as a ban on single-use plastics. Street traders are encouraged to operate from serviced premises and there are restrictions on disruptive kerbside activities.

Urbanisation support
Interestingly, there is another even more significant feature of the drive to make Rwandan cities more liveable and integrated. The effort signals a strong vision of the country’s future path to development. Kagame’s government has embraced urbanisation as a vehicle to speed up Rwanda’s transformation from an impoverished rural society to a prosperous modern economy. Encouraging people to move from the countryside to the cities makes it easier to provide decent jobs, hospitals, training colleges and other public services.

The emphasis on civic order symbolises a concerted agenda of urban reconstruction. Major investment in quality roads and other infrastructure is laying the foundations for well-functioning cities. Leaders know from experience elsewhere that carefully managed urbanisation can spur productive activity and generate income, whereas haphazard urban growth is a recipe for congestion, contagion and serious environmental problems.

The central business district of Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, is being reconfigured to support office development, business services and technology-based enterprises. Hotels and shopping centres are expanding to accommodate tourism, leisure and commercial activities. Large industrial estates are being built on the outskirts to attract inward investment and enable firms that currently occupy overcrowded inner city sites to grow.

Upgrading informal settlements is also part of this agenda. Installing water and sanitation networks, stormwater drains and local access roads will enhance the quality of life for low-income communities. Better schools and clinics are other neighbourhood priorities. One cannot help being impressed by the scale of investment and upkeep of public amenities.

To plan and manage rapid urban development, capacitated city governments are being established, led by highly competent officials and energetic young mayors. Meanwhile, the banks have been encouraged to expand the provision of mortgages to accelerate house building. The state social security fund has also made substantial investments in housing and other property development.

Aligning top-down and bottom-up processes
One’s enthusiasm for Rwanda’s approach is tempered by certain reservations. A tendency for top-down decision making can undermine human rights. Several informal settlements have been relocated to the urban periphery without consulting or compensating the residents. Street vendors, beggars and homeless people are also periodically rounded up for ‘rehabilitation’.

Sometimes the zeal for modernising is also overdone. At one point, thatched roofs were declared obsolete and people were obliged to replace them with corrugated iron, despite its inferior insulation properties. The housing boom has also focused on the upper end of the income spectrum, raising concerns about a potential property bubble.

Nevertheless, Rwanda’s view of the city as a platform for progress is inspiring. Determined leadership at local and national levels is championing an urban agenda that builds commitment to a more prosperous future and fosters civic involvement in the process. Efforts are being made to link urbanisation and participation to the national strategy for economic growth and poverty reduction. Other African countries have much to learn from Rwanda’s remarkable recovery.

Author: Prof Ivan Turok is the executive director of the HSRC’s Economic Performance and Development research programme. He is co-investigator on a research project with the University of Rwanda called Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods.