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Ubudehe & Imihigo: Rebuilding Rwanda

September 12, 2011

So, how does a nation turn the corner after a period of intense crisis? In previous posts, I’ve examined aspects of individual memory and forgetting the past, but what of an entire state? How does a government preside over such a transition, especially when victims and perpetrators live next to one another? From a legislative perspective, there’s a fine line between retribution and reconciliation. While the former must be tempting for genocide’s victims, surely the latter promises a more sustainable strategy for moving forward. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation tribunals offers one historical example. In Rwanda, the struggling state turned to its own historical practices of Gacaca (Ga-cha-cha), community-based trials which traditionally served for minor offenses, and promoted transparency and inclusivity. It’s easy to focus on the horrors of genocide, but there’s a distinct nobility (at least in theory) in this kind of response in the aftermath. This post takes a quick look at the spirit of the Rwandan approach, and how it comes out of a uniquely African and Rwandan form of governance; next week I will look at the Gacaca trials in more concerted detail.

Paul Kagame’s government is frequently criticized for being authoritarian (more on this in a later post), but the premise behind it—Ubudehe, introduced in 2001—is stringently decentralized in intent. In the aftermath of the genocide, this form of government turned to the people to design a contract by which they should govern. The contract—Imihigo—demanded that the country’s poor outline their needs. The government’s subsequent responsibility was to respond to those stated needs. This is somewhat akin to the charters and constitutions of western democracies, but it’s important to stress the inclusivity of the drafting of the compact, which is meant to represent (and be co-authored by) the entire citizenry. It’s an incredible idea, almost too ideal to be believable. But, perhaps, in the wake of such ferocious turmoil, that kind of reconstruction is possible. As in a standard democracy, if government officials prove inept or unable to meet the tenets of the contract they are replaced.

This practice is empowering. The grassroots approach to governing ensures inclusiveness and widespread representation. In 2008, Ubudehe was recognized by the United Nations with its prestigious Public Service Award. In their statement, the UN declared:

The prize recognizes global excellence in public service in countries around the world. “Ubudehe” programme empowers citizens at community level in Rwanda to plan and implement poverty reduction projects. The project was found to have fostered citizens’ participation in policymaking while having improved transparency, accountability, and responsiveness in the public service.

Imihigo is a traditional form of gathering, which initially consisted of testing individuals’ bravery. Its more recent iterations have tended toward public declarations of values and needs, laid out on individual and community levels. The response is a commitment to realize the specified set of goals.

The subsequent process is called Ubudehe, which dissipates down to every family in the country. Families are organized into umudugudu, groups of 100 families, each represented in the process. In turn they participate in wider cell, sector, and district deliberations where the stated needs become entrenched in a contract (Imihigo) that is signed by the mayor of each district and the president. Within the contract are a series of markers to help gauge progress.

At the initial stages of Ubudehe, each family comes together and articulates what resources they have and what they need. These might include livestock, funding for education, food, and employment. These perceived needs are then discussed at the next level, among umudugudu, who outline the needs of those 100 families, and so on. In a country of roughly 9 million, this spread is diverse and encouraging. It suggests better representation than many people in more stable democracies can boast. It also helps to address the greatest needs and methods to best identify the most desperate of the poor and work toward their alleviation

More broadly, though, Ubudehe is about collective, community involvement and effort towards resolving social problems. It also comprises communal weeding, house construction, and exchanging of ideas. In a country so divided by genocide—us and them—this kind of approach is inspiring. Ubudehe implies a sense a togetherness, which aims to mend the rifts caused by bloodshed. Moreover, it hardly requires sociological or economics-based analyses to assert that close relationships exist between people’s culture and their development. In this regard, Ubudehe implies a positive step forward.

But there’s also this: how much of Ubudehe and Imihigo really affords a government the pragmatism to act reflexively? More to reflect on. What is impressive, however, is the manner in which Rwanda was rebuilt and rediscovered itself in a remarkably short period of time after the genocide and subsequent civil unrest. In theory, the central power that preceded the genocide has given way to an intriguing blend of African and European traditions of democracy.

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