Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The African Lion

One of my privileges here in Rwanda is to dialogue with the world’s great “development minds,” some of whom are just passing through and others who join me in calling Rwanda "home."

These experts often use their “development-speak” and reference “the Asian Tigers,” “the Singapore model,” “the South Korean model,” “the Irish model” (or “Celtic Tiger”) and other such shorthand code. I was fascinated to learn from such experts that development scholars are now referencing with great interest the successes of “the Rwandan model.” Even though I could have easily speculated, I have expressly asked others to detail exactly what they mean by the term “the Rwandan model,” and this is a composite answer:

1)   Leadership: strong, self-sacrificing, results-oriented leadership, with a clearly articulated vision and accountability.

2) A sense of purpose and responsibility to define, shape, and build Rwanda’s own future.  Rwanda is the first (and perhaps still the only) country to be declared “a Purpose-Driven Nation.” Rwanda will gratefully receive desired assistance, but it refuses to delegate its destiny into the hands of others. Purposeful, principled leadership gives due consideration to criticism, but will not kowtow to either the West or to Africa.
3)   Peace and security, established and maintained as the essential foundation upon which development and prosperity are constructed; a safe environment that allows the citizenry to work and encourages foreign investors to invest and engage.

4)   Zero tolerance of corruption; a business environment built upon sound principles, not a spoils system built upon personal relationships; an environment in which investors, entrepreneurs, and development organizations can “do business” without ever paying a bribe.

5)   A culture of unity and inclusiveness, where women hold more than 50% of the seats in Parliament and many cabinet posts; where opposition parties are guaranteed strategic positions in government, including President of the Senate; where divisionism, genocide ideology, and ethnic bigotry are considered criminal.

6)   Investment in infrastructure, building first things first: roads, a healthcare system, schools, safe water, an electric grid, telecommunications, and now fiber-optic cable.

7)   An unequaled commitment to education, recently expanding to nine-year basic education for all (9YBE) which required the entire nation (most importantly, local communities) to construct 3,000 new classrooms within a few months. 

8)   An hospitable, favorable business climate, believing that the most certain, efficient way to build the country is to unleash the innate energy of entrepreneurs; a leadership which believes that limited government under a rule of law liberates the private sector to do things that government cannot. (If he were alive, Ronald Reagan would probably reside in Rwanda.) However,  Rwanda seeks to attract “slow money” for the long term, not exploiters and extractors.

9)   Respect for the environment and natural resources. Merely as a single example, Rwanda has outlawed plastic bags, a very progressive move forward that the entire world should follow.

10)  Last but not least, a surprise: Restrictions a guarded view toward NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations / non-profit charities), recognizing that “unintended consequences” often result in those with the very best intentions doing more harm than good. Even before the earthquake, Haiti had long been the NGO / charity capital of the world – 10,000 officially registered – with modest favorable results and many negative results. For example, when well-funded charities enter such an environment they employ the community’s “best and brightest” who would otherwise be building businesses and employing others in their communities, or perhaps serving as a capable leaders in government. Non-profits thereby remove much of the best talent from the marketplace. Moreover, “charity” is often dispensed recklessly, creating dependency and undermining the natural determination to be self-sufficient and provide for one’s own family. Thus, there is “no exit” for the charitable organizations, as they must forever provide for those whom they made dependent. Rwanda, on the other hand, strongly discourages initiatives and strategies that undermine self-sufficiency. President Kagame expressly exhorts: “Do NOT make beggars of Rwandans!”

 The Rwandan model remains “under construction,” a “work in progress” that continues to be refined. However, what happens in Rwanda does not stay in Rwanda. The results achieved by the model are so impressive that Harvard,  MIT, and various developing countries, including Haiti, have sent representatives to Rwanda to ask: “Show us HOW you did that!”… as if it were magic. Rwandans respond that they simply did and continue to do that which must be done, without depending on others.

What is the greatest threat to the Rwandan model? Perhaps its success,… success which causes expectations to rise faster than is reasonable. Westerners are particularly susceptible to this error, as they now expect Rwanda to act like a 250-year-old democracy, when it is only 17 years post-genocide. Rwanda is moving in the right direction at a spectacular pace. And Rwandans will be the first to acknowledge: “There is still much ground to cover, much progress still to be made.”