Along with colleagues from the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), I have just returned from a five-day visit to Rwanda where we are working with the Rwandan Association of Local Government Authorities to set up a Local Government Institute to build capacity among members and officers in Rwandan councils.
The central fact of social and political life there remains, unsurprisingly, the 1994 genocide in which a million people were murdered in a 100-day paroxysm of violence.
We spent a harrowing afternoon at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali trying to gain some meagre understanding both of what happened 20 years ago and how it still shapes the country.
For the country to have survived this at all is incredible. To have prospered is little short of miraculous. By and large, this is what Rwanda has done, assisted by plentiful aid from an international community driven at least in part by guilt at their complete inaction during the genocide.
The population has risen to 11m and, with average growth of 8% a year, the country is well on the way to its target of achieving middle income status by 2020.
Yet the memory of the genocide remains like a dark shadow and almost every feature of local government in Rwanda is rooted in the burning desire to prevent anything like that happening again.
One of the most obvious differences from local government in the UK is that campaigning on party political platforms is prohibited at local level, because political parties were seen as key drivers in the ethnic conflict that precipitated the genocide.
Every citizen and every level of government also has an ‘Imihigo’ or performance contract with their community and/or with central government, against which they are held to account.
The genocide is also a factor driving a wholesale decentralisation policy that has been in place since 2000. The efficacy of local government as an instrument for implementing commands from the centre was one element that enabled the violence to spread so rapidly in 1994 and so, there is an emphasis not just on building community cohesion locally, but on developing local autonomy and decision-making.
Decentralisation is also a key mantra for the World Bank, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other development agencies that see it as a precondition for economic development and public service reform – something we forget in this country.
There is extensive academic and evaluative literature on this. It focuses on the measurable outcomes of decentralisation, rather than its impact on accountability and governance – the extent to which people feel in control of the places they live, able to influence their environment and shape their community’s future.
The UNDP is clear that: ‘Decentralisation is much more than public sector, civil service or administrative reform. It involves the roles and relationships of all of the societal actors, whether governmental, private sector or civil society.’
In practice, there can be a tension between the public management aspects of decentralisation and its democratic ambitions.
In Rwanda, the legacy of the genocide means that this aspect of decentralisation is front and centre. It is here that there are some valuable lessons for the UK. Our devolution process is multi-lateral, multi-speed and led by local government, rather than a uniformly implemented national process.
That has led to some criticism but it can and should be a strength in terms of making devolution about local priorities.
There has been a focus on the practical outcomes of devolution: building houses, developing skills, growing local economies and improving transport. The speed with which councils have had to put devolution bids together means there has been much less time to engage with local people and ensure that devolution is also about returning decision-making to them.
That needs to be the next part of the process. Perhaps this is the difference between decentralisation, which is a positional shift in the functions of the state and true localism that gives people real power to shape communities and the way the state supports them.
That process embeds democracy in local decision-making and underlines the equal value of each and every citizen and their voice.
If nothing else, the Rwandan experience teaches us how much that matters and how we should never take it for granted.
Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.