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:
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!