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Rwanda, a Sustainable Singapore of Africa?

| Tuesday November 8th, 2011 | 5 Comments

This post is part of a series on exploring Rwanda as part of the International Reporting Project’s Gatekeeper Editor trip. Follow along on our page here.

On Kigali's Clean Streets Helmets are Mandatory

I’ve been in Rwanda for scarcely 24 hours and an astonishing array of contrasting stories and experience has already unfolded.  Upon arrival, I was immediately struck by the compete lack of third-world stereotypes I’d been prepared for.  Stray dogs, trash, begging children, clogged streets, agressive vendors and  potholes are nowhere to be found.

Instead, an orderly and clean city has unfolded in front of me.  Folks seem busy doing business and the place is crawling with foreign investment. Construction activity and signage announcing the presence of pretty much every NGO in the world is everywhere you look.

Indeed, Rwanda’s successful transition from the worst place on earth to Africa’s crown jewel of stability and economic growth in less than 20 years seems vivid and real.

But as my newfound colleague Andrew Meldrum writes, there is a “stepford wives” aura in the air that begs the visitor to peek a bit under the hood at a quiet, yet simmering political discontent.  

Although President Paul Kagame’s smart, efficient plan to rid the country of corruption and attract foreign investment has been undoubtedly successful, the increasingly autocratic nature of his government has made vocal criticism a delicate affair.  Alas, the country ranks near the bottom of the barrel for freedom of the press.   Must a certain amount of command and control be expected in a country coming out of genocide, eager to re-join the civilized world on a tight timeline?  Perhaps so.  Singapore, a country Kagame’s regime deeply admires and seeks to mimic has it’s own tight-fisted reputation.  Chewing gum anyone?  Yet Singapore, by anyone’s measurement, is a wildly prosperous place for business that many folks are content to call home. So how do we know if Rwanda has crossed the line?

I like to think in terms of stakeholder engagement – a key tenet of sustainability that can’t be properly conducted without transparency in dialogue and intent.   A country aiming to reconcile generations of ethnic strife while radically transforming its economy and position on the world’s stage had better take it’s commitment to open stakeholder dialogue seriously or unmet needs will ultimately simmer to a boil.

Case in point – Kigali’s incredible master plan:

Kigali 2050? The Audacious and Green(ish) Master Plan

The plan will be a subject of a more detailed post later on, but suffice it to say it’s mind boggling in scope.  It’s a Dubai-esque future-rama of urban living with at least lip-service paid to pretty much every sustainability feature I can think of:- bicycling, walkability, restored ecosystems and new jobs to name a few. The trouble is darn near half the existing city needs to be bulldozed to make way for it.  This means a lot of potentially upset stakeholders.

So far in my investigation, the government has come out okay.  Our conversation with officials at the main urban planning office revealed a strong list of stakeholder dialogues currently taking place between a wide variety of neighborhood groups, commercial interests and so on.  The government has a stated (if not exactly foolproof) goal to reward displaced people with money, a new home, or both in a new neighborhood on the city’s periphery.   In fact, we visited one of these new neighborhoods to talk with a woman who had recently been relocated.  Although her payment was small, by and large, she was satisfied with her new home and thought the new neighborhood was much better, except for the longer commute time it presented.  Most neighbors, she said, were reasonably satisfied as well, though plenty still had gripes of one sort or another.  The improvements didn’t come right away, but required her community to engage proactively with the government to secure the various amenities they’d been promised.  The process was painful, but ironically resulted in a stronger and more organized community network than had ever existed before.

We’ll call her’s a success story for now.

Later this week I’ll get in to more details about the city’s master plan, it’s sustainability features, and some other perspectives on displacement.  Stay tuned!


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  • http://www.rwandahumanrights.org Aimable

    From what I can remember, Singapore does not kill its political opponents by beheadings (2010 Green Party Vice President). Or shoot and kill journalists.

  • http://www.uniontrading.biz Mukiza Edwin

    Whilst freedoms of expressions in Rwanda may not be as ideal and perfect as the democracy crowd would like it to be,their is need to define what should compose of platforms of free speech. The author of this blog may easily believe the dictum that Rwanda is intolerant to free speech,but i advise him to buy for himself a copy of the many tabloids on the streets in Rwanda that operate in kinyarwanda,get himself a translator he trusts and see for himself what the content of these papers is about..We keep hearing of disent voices and fleeing politicins but never do we get coherent reasons as to why they fell out with the establishement. Surprisingly none of the western media is even interested in getting to the nitty gritty of whether indeed the so-called disenters are genuine activists for democracy or just hiding behind the tenets of democracy and free speech to create political stages for them selves well aware of the gullability of the ignorant western media. So if i may ask,is the divergent discourse on politics in Rwanda hinged on matters of economic,health,social policy? I can tell the economic policy of the Obama critics and rivals like Herman Cain but what is it that the critics of Kagame espouse that he or his Goverment are intolerant to? How then can one claim to have no freedom to express himself when even the subjects of discourse are un-known to him or her? This is one of Rwanda’s greatest ironies.That inspite of the so-called opposition having no known coherent policy in economic,political,social that counters that of the Goverment,the former still find a way of claiming lack of freedom to express themselves. And some in the western media have believed it.

  • Jane

    I am a simple Rwandan living in Rwanda. Will Rwandans eat the freedom of expression? Come on… moreover, there is no difference between the way media is operating in Rwanda and how it is in western countries. what we are managing to do like rwandans is to developping our nation on our way, lead ourselves on our own, and those who always want people to hate our Rwanda will keep on speaking and we will go on developping. Only the actions will speak by themselves despite what ‘enemies’will say. God Bless Rwanda

  • faustin

    Rwanda as an African success story has to face excessive criticism most of the times. A journalist has been murdered last year during election time, the culprits arrested, judged and sentenced for a case that had nothing to do with politics, but still the western press watchdog organizations value Rwanda as a press predator due to that affair in which the government did not have any role. Rwanda’s recovery from genocide, the reconciliation many people outside could not expect, the security prevailing in the country for 17 years now, the health and the education system everyone in the country is enjoying, food self-sufficiency for the first time in Rwandan history, the spectacular infant mortality decrease, life expectancy increased, and all the unprecedented progress Rwandans can see everywhere in their country, well… We still have a lot of challenges to match here in Rwanda but on the other hand…it seems what some people like is only bad news from Africa. As usual.

  • FAUSTIN

    @Aimable. Journalist Leonard Rugambage’s murderers have been judged and sentenced. Green party leader’s murderer(s) is (are) unknown until now. I understand it would be good news for the opposition if the evidence of government involvement could be made, but hey, this evidence does not exist. Yet in the absence of evidence, the presumption of innocence is the rule for everyone. Including the Government of Rwanda.