Breaking the poverty cycle with “Ubudehe”

  • By Paschal Buhura
  • January 19, 2011

“Ubudehe”, a traditional Kinyarwnda word that defines the collective effort employed towards solving social problems.

Rwanda’s traditional culture has always included communal work as a way to solving various problems encountered during community development. This involves activities like agriculture, house construction and cattle keeping.
After realizing the importance of community work, a practice called “Ubudehe” was introduced.

Under “Ubudehe”, people from various neighbourhoods gather to do work at another person’s residence; weeding in crop fields, house construction and the exchange of ideas was done in turns.

“It strengthened “ubushuti” (literary meaning friendship) among the people not only lived in that village but in neighbouring villages as well,” explains Mzee Natal Kabera, 60 years, a Kanzenze resident in Bugesera district.

In 2001, the Government of Rwanda through the Common Development Fund (CDF) established a program branded “Ubudehe” as part of a partnership between the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning (MINECOFIN) and that of Local Government (MINALOC) as an initiative to draft the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP).

Different studies in both Sociology and Economics have showed the close relationships between people’s culture and their development.

The 21st century Rwandan society is still faced with a number of problems some of which are attributed to modern social changes following technological advancements.

“We need standard transport infrastructures, health and educational facilities, ensuring child education, security and a so forth, all these require combined efforts to address them as was the case in the past when “Ubudehe provided a good solution,” said the Permanent Secretary in MINALOC Eugene Balikana.

Balikana said the program can be the best means to totally eradicate poverty in the country if it is well implemented in all sectors.

“It is evident that much has been achieved through “Ubudehe” as a national program which has contributed a lot to rural development and the fight against poverty,” he said.

Under the European Union (EU) funded program, surveys were carried out countrywide to seek the social economic status of the Rwandan society. According to the Local Government ministry, a number of methods were applied to achieve the data required and the survey involved visiting citizens at grassroots levels in Cellules where surveyors discussed with residents about the characteristics of poverty and their role in eradicating poverty.

“We listened to people their take on characteristics of each category presented to them, identified problems facing them and devised solutions, classified them (problems) with regard to priorities for immediate solution, worked with them to form projects that might be helpful, searched for support to implement them, drew mechanisms allowing people to solve their problems permanently, developed measures to be taken during difficult periods faced by poorest households, and agreed on permanent management of financial support they received,” Balikana said.

The program categorized Rwandans in six categories depending on the economic status of each individual household, these are:

•Those in abject poverty locally referred to as ‘abatindi nyakuja’, own no property, live on begging and help from others, and consider it lucky if they died.

•The second category, is the very poor and these have no house, live on poor diet which they can afford with difficulty, work every day for others for their survival, have tattered clothes, own no portion of land, and do not own cattle.

•The third category is called the poor. These depend on food deficit in nutrients, own a small portion of land, have low production and their children cannot afford secondary education.

•The fourth category comprises the resourceful poor who own some land, cattle, a bicycle, have average production, their children can afford secondary education, and have less difficulties in accessing health care.

•In the fifth category lie the food rich people who basically own big lands, eat balanced food diets and live decent houses. They employ others, own cattle, and their children easily afford university education.

•The sixth category is the money rich, who comprise of people with money in banks, receive bank loans, own a beautiful house, a car, cattle, fertile lands, sufficient food and are permanent employers.

It is four years down the road since the inception of “ubudehe” and several Rwandans have hailed it for its successes.

“I previously went hungry for days due to the kind of poverty I lived in; I now have a car through the ‘Gir’inka’ program and my children go to school. My life has generally improved,” said Janine Mukaruriza, a 40-year-old resident of Gahanga sector in Kicukiro district. 

However, there are Rwandans who have been caught by the reins of the programme. Some sectors’ funding has been cut down due to the inconsistencies found in the “Ubudehe” data. Those affected include students who were formerly full government scholarship beneficiaries under the Students Financing Agency for Rwanda (SFAR).

“I come from a very poor family background; I was able to access secondary school education through the scholarship scheme for best performing students because my parents could not afford to pat school fees; now I have been removed from Sfar’s full scholarship list. They say that “Ubudehe” data was used as a criterion to trace those who are really needy!” complains John Minega, a 19-year-old first year communication student at the National University of Rwanda (NUR).

But the government says the program was quite crucial for the alleviation of the very poor and poor households which have been easily traced and supported.

According to the Ministry of Local Government, “Ubudehe” Rwanda’s fast growing economy is also attributed to the employment of some cultural ways like “Ubudehe” and a number of others like the “umushyikirano” (Annual National Dialogue) and “itorero ryi’igihugu” (national civic education) where issues affecting communities are discussed and underlying solutions are implemented.

In other words, “Ubudehe” is another way through which Rwanda seeks answers to its people’s problems from the social and cultural perspective. This is in line with the country’s Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS) which is rooted in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) achievement.


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