The drivers of cleanliness, order, and the brand of dignity Rwandans are building
In mid-May we were in Kigali, Rwanda, attending the World Economic Forum meetings. Across most of Kigali, there was something that has become a signature of everything in this country – order. The streets were clean to a fault, the city lawns were properly mowed, the flowers neatly pruned and the gardens around them carefully designed and tended to, the public garbage cans look better than anything I have seen in Paris or London, the traffic lights count time by the second and at night the street lights turn night into day. Everywhere people were walking – no dust or mud or open manholes that litter cities in many poor countries. Kigali has public parks that rival anything you have seen in Paris and the drainage system works.
But it is not these physical attributes that make Kigali exciting. It is the people. My best impression were the police officers from the country’s Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), spotting neatly pressed black uniforms and shinning black boots. The way they conducted themselves, walking with a pride and elegance, ear pieces for security communication in the ears, pistols holstered on their hips and a few with semi automatic guns thrust across their chests. I hate to make this comparison (because of the neo-colonial ring) but they looked like American marines or some elite force from a developed country, not a police force of a poor country.
I spent a significant share of my time as a tourist guide, missing some events at the forum in order to take visitors around the city to see what this country looks like. We would drive from one end to another of Kigali with every road lined with palm trees, a pedestrian sidewalk; every shop builds a dust-proof pavement up to the sidewalk. The visitors would ask me what drives this passion for cleanliness and order. I would tell them that Rwandans have a word for this brand they are building. It is called agaciro – in English, dignity.
The cleanliness in Kigali is shaped by one crucial thing that makes Rwanda stand out generally- the dignity espoused by Rwandans in a post-genocide era.
The idea that Rwandans should live in dignity is something deeply rooted in the politics of post-genocide Rwanda. But for the nation to be dignified, individual citizens should have dignity. To have this dignity, they must have and do things that make a person dignified. So the post genocide state and government has actively sought to encourage Rwandans to live in a clean and neat physical environment but also to be clean and neat themselves as individuals.
The best and most effective form of leadership is leadership by example. So the government of Rwanda ensures that its public servants, the face of the state, must look neat and clean before ordinary citizens who must embrace this new Rwanda. To inculcate this spirit in the people, every last Saturday of every month everyone in Rwanda from the president downwards turns out for community work to ensure a clean neighborhood. On my Facebook page I have videos of President Paul Kagame, his wife Jeannette and their daughter Ange with folded sleeves cleaning a street or building some public infrastructure.
Why does the state in Rwanda with less popular demands upon it feel compelled to do all this? Why does it perform better at delivering public goods and services than nations with more developed democratic infrastructure like Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana and Senegal? Because on most conventional benchmarks of measuring a democratic polity, these countries beat Rwanda hands down. But why do the leaders of Rwanda with less democratic pressure on them feel more obliged to serve than govern? I will revisit this question another day to argue that all too often, we focus too much on the rituals of democracy even when these rituals serve little or no democratic function. May be Africa needs a conversation on the substance of democracy?
Secondly, Rwanda demonstrates the major weakness of using GDP per capita to understand the wellbeing of the citizens of a country. Assume someone earns $10,000 per month in Kampala and another earns $7,000 per month in Rwanda. Whose wellbeing would be better? The guy in Kampala has to incur extra expenses to compensate for poor pubic goods. For example, he has to construct the road to his house or drive through mud and potholes. He has to buy an SUV and spend more money on it regularly replacing shock absorbers because of potholes. He has to wash the car twice a day because of the mud and dust.
On many occasions, the Kampala resident has to drive (burning fuel and breaking his car in potholes), to go jog, run, or walk in a gym because there are no pedestrian sidewalks. He has to knock boda bodas because at night there are no streetlights. He has to worry about accidents (and suffer anxiety) because traffic lights don’t work. He has to pay medical bills for his relatives and housekeepers because of lack of a national medical insurance system. All these are costs on wellbeing. How do we price the benefits of a good and clean environment that add to one’s wellbeing?
When I was young and intelligent, I used to think that it is possible to replicate the Rwandan experience everywhere. Now that I have grown old and thoughtful, I think if it were easy to replicate, many poor nations would have done it. It is not true that all leaders of poor countries are selfish and greedy thugs out to line their own pockets. All too often, the way politics is organised in poor (and even rich countries) makes it very difficult to mount successful reform of the status quo. This is because entrenched interests that must be accommodated for the system to work benefit from many of the dysfunctions we see. Any attempt at reform finds resistance from such powerful interests. The experience of Jennifer Musisi in Kampala and the subsequent obliteration of NRM in the last elections has driven this point home.
That is why most successful reform tends to happen during war or after devastation brought by war. May be Rwanda works in large part because the genocide destroyed old centers of power, thereby making it possible to pursue comprehensive reform without significant resistance from entrenched interests. This sounds callous but nations like Germany and Japan that were almost obliterated by World War Two enjoyed the fastest growth thereafter, becoming second and third largest economies in the world than nations like France and UK that had not suffered massive destruction. This has also been the experience of East Asia’s success stories – South Korea and Taiwan.