VIDEO: Outgoing UNDP boss reflects on his five-year service in Rwanda

Stephen Rodriques will depart Rwanda for Liberia. Gad Nshimiyiimana

This week, the UNDP Resident Representative for Rwanda Stephen Rodriques will depart Rwanda for Liberia, drawing a curtain on a five-year tour of duty. The Jamaican national spoke to The New Times’ Felly Kimenyi on his experience in Rwanda, challenges and what he will miss as he leaves.

Last week, you penned an emotional letter that you addressed to the people of Rwanda. What prompted this? Is it something you do in every country where you have served?


No! I have never done it before and it is because it is an emotional moment for me. I often tell people that it’s not just five years of work, it’s five years of your life.


Those five years for me have been incredible. So much love and warmth from Rwandans. That letter was a way for me to say thanks, for welcoming me and making me feel so at home like a brother.


What I have seen in this country is that it has been so impressive that I also wanted to pay tribute to the leaders and the people of this country for what they have been able to do and very often you see negative stories about not just Rwanda but Africa.

At the same time, I think there are many incredible things happening in countries like Rwanda and the continent and those kinds of stories also need to be told.

So I just wanted to add my voice to those that recognize that something incredible is happening here and to say thanks to those people that made me feel so much at home.

Generally speaking, can you tell us how have been your five years here?

In a nutshell, professionally it has been very rewarding, I think what we have been able to do – not just me but the entire team here – is quite remarkable. This is entirely because the government is very organised; there is a very clear national plan and strategy.

Every ministry, agency, even in civil society and private sector, there is a clear sense of direction of where they want to go.

This makes it easier for us with our national partners to get things done. So, professionally it’s been fantastic, we have had many positive outcomes from the programs that we support here.

On a personal level, it’s again about when you think about the quality of your life, the safety and security you feel.

I love to go walking and jogging and do that often either day or night, I like fresh air and I can breathe in Kigali and the fact that the city and the country are well organised and well ran makes it very easy for me to enjoy the life I’ve lived here. It’s been very rewarding and personal to be here.

In terms of your work here, what do you think will be the legacy of your five-year duty?

(Laughs), I don’t think so much about my own legacy. I think in terms of two things; what the country has been able to do in the five years that I have been here and then secondly, how we have been able to support.

On the first front, this is something I want to convey; I have something happening for Rwanda not only for the last five years but even on the longer terms for the last 26 years since the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi happened.

Rwanda didn’t develop by accident, not even by being geographically placed at a very strategic location because it has access to certain markets or it has some wealth of resources and so on.

Rwanda shaped its destiny, its leadership and its own people deliberately designed the policies and strategies and the programmes that have moved Rwanda from where it was from 1994–a country coming out of one of the darkest chapters in human history – to where it is today. I think that’s the first thing to celebrate.

It’s not about my legacy, it’s the celebration that the country and continent have emerged from that place through good governance and leadership and making the right choices that have led to the kind of transformation we see.

I have been privileged to lead a team here that has been able to support the country in a number of areas and I am very proud of the work they have done. Supporting young entrepreneurs for example, very proud of the work on disability through promoting the rights of people with disabilities, bringing partners together to push that agenda forward.

The UNDP Resident Representative for Rwanda Stephen Rodriques during the interview lat week. / Gad Nshimiyimana

I now hear the voice of those people with disabilities when they tell me that they have been heard in society and that their lives have been changed.

Regarding unity and reconciliation, we have seen a number of thousands of people that were part of the Genocide getting out of prison being prepared for reintegration, and that’s part of the support that we have provided through partners like NURC (National Unity and Reconciliation Commission).

There has been work towards promoting gender equality in the private sector and of course the anti-pandemic robots that we brought.

There are many things, I think we have made a great contribution but we didn’t do it alone. We did it working along with our national partners and donors. It has also been a credible energy and commitment for our own staff.

When you say that your tour in Rwanda has been professionally rewarding, do you think your Rwanda experience is going to be of any use to you in your next assignments?

Most definitely, there are many things I am taking with me about Rwanda and many of the approaches to governance and development that I have seen here I think are worth sharing with other countries.

We know that each country is different and it’s not about taking something from Rwanda and bringing it somewhere else but it’s more about sharing experiences to other countries that can learn from Rwanda.

I think the work that has been done for instance in promoting unity and reconciliation is something for many other countries to learn from. There are many countries with no social cohesion where there are frictions between different groups in society, whether ethnic groups or class groups or whatever the case it may be.

Rwanda has done an outstanding job of promoting social cohesion but also promoting inclusiveness that everyone in the society has a place within the country’s development. But I am also a big fan of the Imihigo system because the basic idea is when you become part of the government whether elected or not elected, you are here to serve people.

Rwanda is taking a lead on the environment and sending a global message that we all need to tackle the environment and the climate change.

Rwanda has its challenges, but it has done so well in many areas that I would love more countries to see what has happened.

What are some of the challenges that you have encountered both on a personal and institutional level in relation to your work?

Personally, I have not experienced any challenges but on the professional front, the country has some shortcomings for instance child malnutrition. There is no effort to hide these issues.

Last year, we supported Rwanda to do its review of the Sustainable Development Goals, and it was an honest review that looked at both areas where the country has made progress as well as accelerated efforts are needed, and areas like child malnutrition and unemployment, were highlighted.

As partners with the government, we are really engaging with them to see if we can jointly find some solutions to tackle those challenges. But otherwise, we have enjoyed excellent working relationships with all national partners, and the private sector and civil society.

So I can’t complain, it’s been really a blessing in so many ways.

Covid-19 has hit Rwandan economy like the rest of the world and this is exemplified in the recent statistics by NISR. As a development expert, how much do you think this will affect Rwanda’s ambitions and what sort of prospects do you see regarding recovery from these effects?

The experts are predicting that may be by 2022, globally we will begin to march from this. Until there is a vaccine and until that vaccine is accessible to everyone, it will be extremely difficult for things to return to normal.

While we are still social distancing and wearing masks, we can restore some economic activities but we can’t go back to normal while the pandemic is still in place. Covid-19 will continue to be a problem for economies not just Rwanda but across the world even the more developed countries.

What I think positions Rwanda well to cope with this, is the fact that Rwanda has been adapting a development approach which is completely comprehensive and it’s very important to put this on record.

In economic terms, if you are starting at a low base, it’s easy to achieve higher rates of growth. But what’s unique about Rwanda is that it has been making solid progress not only in terms of economic growth but in all of the social, economic and environmental areas.

Stephen Rodriques will depart Rwanda for Liberia. / Gad Nshimiyimana

High rates of GDP growth, improvement in health, reducing mortality rates, access to education and water, sanitation, comprehensive health insurance, protecting the environment and promoting gender equality. Rwanda has always adopted a broad-based approach to development and that’s the right approach and this is what I believe will help Rwanda to deal with the pandemic.

The impact is still to be determined because Covid-19 is still with us and it will be with us for a while but by making those broad investments in the development of the country, education, skills development, health, Rwanda has positioned itself well for the longer term.

UN is celebrating 75 years, it’s quite a milestone, but we can’t do away with the fact that it has had its own challenges here in Rwanda especially, going back to what happened in 1994. How do you think the relationship between the government of Rwanda and the UN has evolved?

We enjoy excellent relationships with the government and our national partners and we have never been shy in acknowledging that we made mistakes when the UN and the global community, abandoned Rwanda while in need. That’s something we accept and apologised for.

But since the Genocide against the Tutsi, as you might have heard at the UN 75 celebrations commemorations, we have been there with Rwanda, we were there for the humanitarian assistance but we have also been there in help the country’s development agenda.

When you look at the country’s development, there is always no area that you will not see a footprint of the UN, whether in education and the work that UNICEF and others have done, in culture, health, the UN has played a role.

I am happy to see the kind of recognition of that from the national partners. We have held hands and looked at issues together with our sleeves rolled up to try and deal with those challenges that Rwanda has faced.

The kind of partnership we now enjoy with a wide range of ministries and agencies that we work with, partnership based on trust and mutual respect.

Finally, what’s that thing you are going to miss in Rwanda?

There are too many, I love tilapia, the “mizuzu”, and spending time by the lake whether it’s in Gisenyi or Kibuye and enjoy the sense of tranquility after a heavy week of work and just be able to relax and sit at the lake with a book.

But I will also miss interacting with the Rwandans. I felt loved, warmed and friendship.

When I came here, I remember minister (Prof. Anastase) Shyaka by that time he was at RGB and when I went to meet him, he was one of the first persons I had met, he held on to my hand after we shook hands.

I was confused but he stayed holding my hand until we reached his office and it took time for me to realise it was a hand of friendship. Some of the ministers, we have had a great working relationship. But also, I will miss the communal work, “Umuganda” and working side by side with community members helping to build houses for the needy people.

I remember a picture of the young boy planting a tree with me, it was beautiful and I will keep it with me.

This interview was transcribed by Joan Mbabazi.

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