24 November 2012

East Africa: Something Impressive and Admirable in Rwanda

How a devastated nation became an economic model for the developing world

In their latest collaboration, Patricia Crisafulli ("The House of Dimon"), former business journalist with the Chicago bureau of Reuters, and business consultant Andrea Redmond focus on Rwanda.

Though less than 20 years removed from one of the most brutal examples of genocide in history, the authors make a somewhat less than convincing case that the country, led by its "CEO" president Paul Kagame, is poised to become a high-tech player in the global economy, "the ultimate turnaround story on a continent better known for broken promises and unfulfilled potential."

"Rwanda, Inc." begins with a brisk recounting of Rwanda's recent bloody past, underscoring the challenges the nation faced economically and culturally. It then moves through efforts to ensure reconciliation and unification, and Kagame's corporate approach to rebuilding, cornerstoned by improving and spreading education for citizens and opening doors to foreign investment and partnerships.

Certainly, few can deny the significance of Rwanda's progress since the genocidal slaughter that culminated in 1994. Poverty levels are down significantly -- 44.9 percent in 2011, down from 56.9 in 2006 -- and per capita income has increased from US$200 in 2000 to US$560 today.

Rwanda is also unique within Africa with its zero-tolerance policy on corruption. However, Crisafulli and Redmond fail to persuade on the economic viability of a country in which subsistence agriculture supports 80 percent of the population and, as of 2011, less than 11 percent of households were electrified.

The majority of the book is given over to praise for Kagame's vision, determination, and dedication. Few will argue that "the economic and social progress realized in Rwanda since the genocide is directly attributable to the leadership of Paul Kagame," but the authors lavish attention on the president and his mantra of self-sufficiency at the expense of building a coherent case about the country's growth.

The occasional anecdotal stories about citizens making the most of available opportunities make for inspirational reading, but the book lacks in-depth analysis and suffers from a choppy prose and an awkward integration of research and quotes. Further, the authors consistently belabor obvious points -- "a better educated Rwandan population will help the country continue its growth and development."

The authors present an interesting argument that Rwanda's future growth will benefit from two cultural customs that emphasize self-determination and accountability: imihigo, "a kind of performance contract" dating to precolonial times, in which failure to deliver is not an option, and umuganda, national days of community work that occur on the last Saturday of every month.

To be sure, there is something impressive and admirable in the Rwandan national character that has helped to heal the deep, vicious wounds that remain from the years of genocide, and there are important lessons to be learned from the "Rwanda model: do for yourself, remain independent-minded and self-determining, and forge strategic partnerships with those who support your vision."

However, Crisafulli and Redmond rephrase this mantra so many times throughout the book that the message loses most of its impact. While Rwanda's story is impressive by many measures, this rosy chronicle of its progress seems provocative but premature.

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