There are no shortcuts to nation building

Global challenges often stem from local failures in governance, which require a huge social and political commitment to overcome, writes Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda. This year, the modern international system, which began with the founding of the United Nations in 1945, will be 70 years old. We live in a world transformed for the […]


Global challenges often stem from local failures in governance, which require a huge social and political commitment to overcome, writes Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda.

This year, the modern international system, which began with the founding of the United Nations in 1945, will be 70 years old. We live in a world transformed for the better. The pace of economic and human development has never been so rapid, or touched so large a share of the world’s people.

This progress comes because accountable governance and free markets increasingly allow the benefits of science and technology to reach almost anyone on the globe.

So why then does the world seem to create the impression that it is spinning out of control?

We have seen states collapse into violence, even though their success was a strategic priority for powerful members of the international community, as reflected in the tens of billions of dollars spent to build them up.

We have seen that peace, even in the heart of the industrialized world, can no longer be taken for granted.

We have seen that eliminating individual terrorists or defeating extremist organisations does not signal the end of extremist ideologies.

On the contrary, terrorism has grown more decentralised, brutal, and transnational, with an increasing ability to confuse and capture the hearts and minds of youth even in the most developed countries.

Yet there is still sometimes a reluctance to label some of these die-hard extremists as such, hampering coordinated action. Defining violent extremists should not depend on where their activities are directed or against whom.

We continue to see the panic of Ebola. Once assumed to be a local problem, it has quickly become a global threat and there is still lack of clarity as to how it will be brought under full control. However, today, global collaboration has proven to be the best hope against Ebola. Cooperation will always be at the centre of dealing with these global threats.

With all this, it is no wonder that some commentators have gone so far as to question whether the global order is beginning to unravel.

I do not share this pessimism.

For those of us on what is still sometimes referred to as “the periphery”, today’s turbulence is not new. What is different is the increasing futility of strategies based on containment. A problem can arise in a small place and quickly affect the entire world. But these same trends also mean that solutions can be found in such places, and go on to benefit others.

Rwanda is a small country in a turbulent region, and our history has taught us that difficult problems must be solved head on. We had to rebuild our nation not only economically, but also socially and politically.

Two years after the Genocide, more than two million Rwandans, among them many perpetrators, returned home to a deeply fractured nation. Living side by side with those who survived, the urgency of both reconciliation and justice was clear.

Our country has been a good example of the importance of international partnership for development.

For example, we saw one million people lift themselves out of poverty in a five-year period and we now welcome more than a million visitors a year to our country. We offer universal health insurance and have recorded the fastest ever declines in child and maternal mortality. Rwanda is also the fifth largest contributor of international peacekeeping.

But it is misleading to highlight such achievements on their own. We still have a long way to go and statistics do not convey the most important part of the story.

Rwanda’s economic and social development is built on political development and strong institutions. Consensus-building, unity, and accountability are the values we place at the centre of our efforts.

A capacity for popular mobilisation at all levels of society was essential as we worked to transform mindsets. Every person matters. To succeed, citizens not only have to understand the direction of change, but also play an active role in defining and implementing it.

In the late 1990s, a series of meetings for broad consultation were convened every week for several months. The participants included representatives from all political parties, even some which had an association with the Genocide, but also leaders from business, academia, civil society, and the legal profession.

The task was to work out a consensus about the real historical and contextual causes of Rwanda’s tragedy, and from there identify how to move forward as a nation. It was here that some of the most important decisions that shaped the country were taken, after extensive and respectful debates.

The Gacaca system we established to try genocide cases was able to hear two million cases over ten years. This effort was originally opposed by outsiders even though they offered no alternatives at all.

At the same time, in the course of these discussions, the necessity to restore trust in public institutions and public servants became clearer than ever. Since then, the fight against corruption and abuse of office has been firm and consistent. Even though this has sometimes become a source of friction.

Well-organised political institutions are an important part of nation-building. The Rwanda Patriotic Front and its coalition partners came to the table with a programme of action derived from progressive ideals. But the outcome of the different efforts of dialogue reflected a wide national consensus, not just RPF’s (Rwandan Patriotic Front).

It is sometimes said that Rwanda’s economic and social achievements are somehow offset by a lack of democracy and popular voice. The truth is exactly the opposite. What is commonly perceived as Rwanda’s biggest weakness is actually its greatest strength.

We would have gotten nowhere without robust mechanisms for popular participation. Inclusive politics and accountable governance with a vision are the reasons why Rwanda is not just secure, but stable. They explain why external financing for Rwanda’s development programmes produces measurable results, year after year.

They explain why Rwandans express high levels of trust and satisfaction with the quality of governance in independent surveys.

Just as crucially for a society that was as divided as ours, Rwandans increasingly trust each other. In 2007, a Gallup survey found that 36 per cent of Rwandans believed a stranger would be likely to return a lost wallet to its owner. And 88 per cent believed that a neighbour or a police officer would do so. These were some of the highest rates recorded anywhere.

Rwanda’s successful Eurobond offering in London in 2013 showed that the trust Rwandans express is also shared in financial markets. It is a key component of our economic growth and investment strategy.

There are no shortcuts. Nation-building, by definition, cannot be externally-led. The solutions that Rwandans developed through consultation cannot just be transposed elsewhere. Neither can the solutions that other nations, poor and rich, big and small, have used to achieve success at nationhood at various times in their history.

Without greater understanding of the political and institutional basis for resolving the problems of social cohesion and public trust, we, meaning all of us in the international community, will continue to struggle to find our way through this period of global uncertainty.

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