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Rebuilding Rwanda: Access and accountability

Commentary: As we approach the 20th anniversary of one of humanity's darkest moments, a look forward in five parts.
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Graduation at the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali. The next generation of Rwandans is President Kagame’s focus when he speaks about advancing the country. (Rwandan Women Rising/Courtesy)

This is the last piece in a five-part series. Read the fourth.

KIGALI, Rwanda — An inside view of Rwanda is Umushyikirano, an enormous town hall presided over by President Kagame and attended by his cabinet, their high-level staff, religious and business leaders, plus officials from the country’s 30 districts. Mandated by the constitution, this year’s two-day meeting has the theme “The Rwandan spirit: foundation for sustainable development."

Unlike in the US government, where political dialogue seems of little value, most participants in the Rwandan National Dialogue seem to appreciate communication between citizens and government leaders as much as (or more than?) they might value specific outcomes. That said, a respondent without a solid explanation may lose her or his job.

Preparations for the 11th National Dialogue were in full swing when I arrived in Kigali a week before. Having attended the meeting four years ago, I knew I would be aware of my conspicuously white skin. But others crowded into the Parliament seem too intent on the proceedings to notice.

The meeting is broadcast countrywide over live television and radio. Citizens from all walks of life call in, send text messages, post on Facebook, or tweet about concerns or queries regarding virtually any topic in which the government may (or may not) have a hand.

The meeting is noteworthy on many fronts. The day before, a respected diplomat remarked to me that although the president is divisive internationally, he has been astoundingly successful in unifying pragmatic rural people who repeatedly vote almost unanimously for his Rwandan Patriotic Front. Even if the political arena has little real space, the ambassador noted, what people in rural areas (almost all Rwanda) care about is stability. They ask themselves, “Is my life better?” Leaving aside, if one can, accusations of Kagame’s intolerance of critical press and his alleged involvement in the travails of Eastern Congo, I’m witnessing a compellingly transparent process, which he considers important for social development.

The president’s ideas for domestic advancement are far ahead of the population, as Rwandans themselves tell me, and in this setting his leadership style is to hold his senior managers accountable to the requests, complaints, or needs of citizens. Questions run the gamut from the most personal (the man asking for a restock of condoms) to the administrative (where are the computers the Minister of Health promised to women?) to the collective (the need for services for mentally ill people now on the streets).

Some questions point to the government’s reputation for public works; the country’s infrastructure is a source of pride for many Rwandans (and astonishment for visitors). A caller wants to know why the feeder road near his farm remains unpaved and when the government will lay tarmac. The Minister of Infrastructure fields the question and offers a reasoned response about how the government is responsible for maintaining thoroughfares and municipal streets but local communities must take care of rural roads. He suggests repair work be taken up during the mandatory monthly community service day, Umuganda. (Using “working together” is a determined reclaiming of a word made sinister when used 20 years ago to urge people to work together to slaughter others.)

The emphasis on self-sufficiency — grounded, I’m told, in Rwanda’s abandonment during the genocide — permeates society. President Kagame takes the opportunity to ruminate on that topic when a young woman calls in to complain, to the amusement of the audience, about a man in her town no longer offering daily rides to work in his car. He responds, essentially: Learn to take care of yourself.

Including the next generation is a value the president states repeatedly in his remarks. An animated group of students is projected on large screens. The pupils pass the microphone and clap after anyone stands to ask a well-rehearsed question.

Paul Kagame is a rare breed of detail-oriented visionary. His standards are high, and he brooks no fools. A topic comes in that falls into the purview of an official in the audience. The man stands and is handed a microphone. “What did you spend on that project this year?” the president barks. “What did we spend this year?” “Don’t repeat the question! Just answer it!” Smiles appear among the audience. “We had some problems with our internal functioning.” The president sits forward in his chair. “Your answers are too vague!”

Now the audience is laughing outright — not at the official, not at the president, but, at the whole scene in which they’re engaged. Kagame grins along with them, enhancing the sense of community. But another official is on the spot. The erstwhile general pushes: “Why aren’t you answering their questions about the numbers? Are you trying to hide something?”

The crowd chuckles again. Despite the serious issues and potential repercussions, they’re having a good time. The day ends, in fact, with a dance.

Swanee Hunt, former US Ambassador to Austria, is the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Editor's note: Ms. Hunt is an investor in GlobalPost.

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