Is Rwanda a Potemkin village?

Susan Thomson, an assistant professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University had an interesting article recently about Rwanda.  The piece was originally published in the Conversation and re-published by the Huffington Post as “Democracy Rwanda Style: You Can Have any President You Want, As Long as Its Paul Kagame.”  While the main gist of the article didn’t come as any surprise, there was one nugget in the article that I found intriguing.  Thomson writes:

“Kagame devotees are quick to point out the country’s economic successes, using reports produced by the Rwandan government itself to back up their claims. In recent years, the World Bank has indeed found Rwanda to be among the easiest countries in Africa in which to do business. But in 2006, when the same World Bank found data that did not support the narrative of economic growth in Rwanda, that data was destroyed and the foreign researchers were expelled. Since then everything from the World Bank on Rwanda has been positive. Suppressing dissent knows no bounds.”

She links to a paper by Bert Ingelaere called “Do We Understand Life after Genocide? Center and Periphery in the Construction of Knowledge in Postgenocide Rwanda.”  It’s a fascinating paper and work checking out in full, but here are some of the parts that I found noteworthy.

a.  There is a Potemkin village aspect to Rwanda where the state carefully manages how much access researchers have to villagers as well as the villagers behavior and thoughts (at least the ones that are voiced) about progress.  One anecdote involves the government trying to make villagers look less poor by wearing shoes.  Ingelaere writes:

“Not wearing shoes means exclusion from public places such as markets and being turned away from official government functions. Yet peasants often do not have the financial means to adhere to this rule, and sometimes end up in the local cachot (jail) as a result. Obligatory fines of 10,000 Rwandan francs are not adjusted to the circumstances of rural life, and thus the only strategy for regaining freedom is to borrow money from family and friends, resulting in debt and more poverty.

Another strategy is to follow the spirit, if not the letter, of the policy and participate in the project of image control. During fieldwork we noticed men and women walking to official gatherings and carrying their shoes on their heads. The purchase of new shoes as required by official policy had represented a serious investment, and these possessions had to be handled with care. Only when approaching the area where government officials were located (sometimes in the company of foreign visiters inspecting a “project” or some other “developmental” initiative) would they put on their shoes. Then, after the meeting and out of sight of the eyes of the state and the foreigners, the shoes would be removed and placed back on the head.”

b. The story on the World Bank data is a bit more complicated.  Rwanda was to make up one of many countries that the Bank was studying to chart Amartya Sen’s “expansion of freedoms,” where development is measured by more than just income, including things like “the exercise of basic rights, and the success or failure of democratic institutions in different countries.”  You can tell from that quote that the Rwandan government was not going to be pleased with the results.

After six months of surveying Rwandans, the government put a stop to the study:  “The Rwandan security forces seized at least half of the data on the pretext that ‘genocide ideology’ lurked in the research design and study content. Rwandan participants were questioned by the police, and foreign researchers implementing the study were summoned by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). After a long period of negotiation between high-level World Bank representatives and several Rwandan ministers and other government officials, the decision was taken to destroy all the data and abandon the research project altogether.”

Alrighty then…I guess the Bank got the message.

One thought on “Is Rwanda a Potemkin village?

  1. Pingback: Tuesday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION

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