Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance, Finance

Decentralisation, the practical and the visionary: The Rwandan experience


A second blog from Rwanda, where some of the LGiU team are working with the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF) to get to know our partners the Rwandan Association of Local Government Authorities (RALGA) and to hear about their plans for a local government institute. Janet Sillett reflects on decentralisation there and in the UK.

Following on from Andrew’s briefing yesterday – our short stay in Rwanda has given us so much to think about. Not least, today’s visit to the Rwanda Genocide Memorial museum. It’s of course profoundly moving, and then seeing just how much progress has been made in a country which was broken by the 1994 genocide is truly amazing.

I was thinking later about the role of decentralisation in the rebuilding of Rwanda. Decentralisation is a common theme across continents and in rich and poor countries alike. The drivers for decentralisation vary enormously. The impetus can come from sub national government, from cities, for example, wanting greater fiscal autonomy or from smaller nations or major regions seeking independence, but it can also be the result of the state itself seeing decentralisation as the prime way of reforming structures and powers.

In Rwanda the initial motivation for decentralisation is painfully clear – rebuilding Rwanda after the 1994 genocide meant starting everything again. The decentralisation plan was, and is, seen as a crucial component of the country’s reconstruction. Empowering very local communities to look at solving their own problems, building new structures to enable this to happen and building commitment and trust where a society has been so shockingly damaged.

Rwanda clearly saw decentralisation as the main way to improve governance. This must be true of decentralisation in many parts of the world – where it is the major motive behind reform. It takes many forms – in Rwanda it was the genocide, in other countries it may be corruption in the system, or moving from a totalitarian to a democratic regime.

Listening to Rwandans from the Rwandan Association of Local Government Authorities, the University of Rwanda, from the senior civil servant in the Local Government Ministry, and the Mayor of the next large district to Kigali, what struck me was the mix of the practical, the theoretical and the visionary. Local government is seen ideally both as a means of strengthening local economies and also increasing local participation, of improving services and implementing anti poverty programmes and of developing the local economy, but also crucially as a, or even the, key player in ensuring that what happened in 1994 can’t be repeated. Of course this isn’t perfect. Where is it perfect? The accountability is definitely up from local government to central government. Local government here is growing in confidence but it isn’t there yet.

Decentralisation is studied everywhere – there is a mountain of literature, but the focus is often on outcomes – on decentralisation’s effects on outputs such as economic activity or improved health. There is less emphasis on governance and accountability. In somewhere like Rwanda obviously achieving social and economic gaols is absolutely critical and we certainly discussed local governments role in this and how local government itself can build capacity and skills. But equally, given the context, the effects of reform on the quality of governance and democracy, from the village up to the main cities, is of primary concern.

I think we can learn lessons in the UK from seeing the challenges and opportunities of Rwanda. We talked with the Mayor about the energy felt within all levels of local government to do well (certainly not lacking in the UK but it feels fiercely so in Rwanda?). We share many common issues, which is interesting itself, given the huge differences between us. Decentralisation in England is being steered largely by the concerns around local growth and more effective service delivery – just as it is in Rwanda, even if the background is hardly the same. But we need to remember that decentralisation is more than about efficiency and delivery – it is driven, or should be partly driven, by a vision of better governance – which was essential in Rwanda to stabilise the country and promote cohesion and integration. The motivation behind devolution and decentralisation in the UK should also be greater accountability, increased participation and a strengthened democracy.

The vision behind decentralisation in Rwanda is very strong – that doesn’t mean it will be delivered unproblematically, but bringing together the two main strands, the practical and the ideal, is essential to success, and this surely must be the case in the UK too?