Straight talk – Rwanda’s secret to development
The refrain of a Kinyarwanda mobilisation song goes something like this: Rwandans’ secret (for success) has always baffled outsiders. Obviously this is a self-congratulatory song. But it also expresses a certain pride in the exception that Rwanda has become and is in this sense a useful rallying point for even greater achievements to merit the exception tag.
One of these is what may be called “straight talk”, a sort of tell it all as it is practice in matters to do with governance and development. This may sound strange because Rwandans are reported (by outsiders) to be circumspect in their speech – never saying things directly or calling them by their proper name. That may be so with strangers (and sometimes there are good reasons for this), but when it comes to national issues that concern them, there are no taboos and nothing is sacred.
And this practice has become institutionalised – in some cases, even enshrined in the constitution. One such practice that has become an institution is the annual national leadership retreat. At the beginning of every year, national leaders to the level of district mayors meet to examine development progress and review future plans.
Retreats are not a uniquely Rwandan thing. They happen everywhere. The only difference is how it is done and what comes out of it. Anyone who has attended any of these retreats – now numbering nine – will testify that things are said as they are. A spade is a spade. Weaknesses and shortcomings are pointed out and those responsible for them fingered. There are no excuses for avoidable mistakes or delays in implementing programmes.
Now, what has such a “telling it as it is” practice have to do with development? A lot. For the top leadership of Rwanda, the bottom line of their development programmes is lifting citizens out of poverty and raise their living standards. Anything, any forum that promotes this basic objective is a useful tool.
It has been shown that straight talk helps to keep the focus on national objectives and more importantly, solutions to challenges and results. If there is a single word that may summarise the spirit of straight talk, it is results. Focus on results means shifting away from processes and procedures so beloved of bureaucrats and politicians and yet the very things that bog down many countries in Africa.
Secondly, it improves performance by enhancing accountability. The very idea of having to account in a no-taboo situation, no-holds-barred exchange in an open forum guarantees performance. If for nothing else, the prospect of exposure before means one is likely to perform.
Thirdly, open forums promote coordination of development programmes. Everyone sings from the same song sheet, no one is out of tune and the result is harmony.
The tell-all leadership retreat assumes greater significance when viewed with other “straight talk” forums. It comes shortly after the National Dialogue. This is another level of accountability. This time leaders present to ordinary citizens their work and the latter grade them on their performance.
Both forums mean that all Rwandans are actively involved in shaping the future of their country. That empowerment may perhaps be the secret of the song that has continued to elude foreigners.
Interestingly, the subject that draws the most widespread and intense discussion in almost all public forums is the economy. This is an indication of where the major concern of Rwandans lies. They want to improve their living standards. They want to raise their prosperity.
This fact is a resounding rebuke to the army of experts and unsolicited advisors who think they know best what we need. According to them, what we need is not more economic growth, but more open space (whatever that means).
The two public performance and accountability forums are examples of openness that is so rare in many parts of the world, including even those in the habit of lecturing others on the virtues of openness.
Rwandans don’t simply talk about openness, but live and practice it. We only lack the power and arrogance to force it on others. That’s not a deficiency we can be overly concerned about. It does not add value to who we are. Straight talk does; openness does and we should keep them. At any rate, that remains our “secret”.
Contact email: Email: jorwagatare[at]yahoo.co.uk