Rwanda: Rule of law, political choices and development

KIGALI - During his visit to Ngoma District, Eastern Province, last week, President Kagame defined the current leadership’s agenda as a breakaway from earlier regimes which had adopted “bad politics” as a way of managing the nation, resulting – as we all know too well – in abject poverty for the masses, endemic and systemic corruption and rent-seeking behaviour in public life, discrimination and persecution of some sections of Rwandans up until, and including, the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.
Iddi Gaparayi
Iddi Gaparayi

KIGALI - During his visit to Ngoma District, Eastern Province, last week, President Kagame defined the current leadership’s agenda as a breakaway from earlier regimes which had adopted “bad politics” as a way of managing the nation, resulting – as we all know too well – in abject poverty for the masses, endemic and systemic corruption and rent-seeking behaviour in public life, discrimination and persecution of some sections of Rwandans up until, and including, the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.

For Rwandans, therefore, building “a capable state characterised by the rule of law” is more than an empty promise.  It is an aspiration and a commitment of the leadership and the people of Rwanda to move the country from a condition of division, anarchy, destruction and mass atrocity to one governed by the rule of law. While defined in various ways, the rule of law prevails where (i) the government itself is bound by the law, (ii) every person in society is treated equally under the law, (iii) the human dignity of each individual is recognized and protected by law, and (iv) justice is accessible to all.

The rule of law is seen as essential for long-term development because it provides security for foreign and domestic investment, property and contract rights, international trade, and other vehicles for advancing economic growth. In addition, there have been suggestions that good “rule of law” performance goes hand in hand with favourable development indicators, such as lowered infant mortality and higher incomes and literacy.

Over the last decade, law — understood as a combination of human rights, courts, property rights, formalization of entitlements, prosecution of corruption, and public order – has come to define the good developed state.

Nobel laureate Amatyr Sen best articulated these ideas in his 1999 book “Development as Freedom”: freedom require good health, nourishment, housing, longevity – as well as the ability to own property and participate freely in a market society to develop one’s potential, support one’s family and oneself. 

However, while attention to “human rights”, “freedom”, “democracy” and “social welfare” may all sound like good ideas to pursue, development policy must still be attuned to specific political, economic, social and cultural conditions.

Indeed, a fundamental tenet of development principles and practice is that the elements of success in one society do not necessarily translate into success elsewhere. In other words, as President Kagame aptly pointed out in his address to Ngoma District’s residents, Rwanda does not need to adopt laws and legal institutions, policies or politics found in developed countries since there is no evidence that such wholesale imports would help Rwanda develop.

In fact, several nations that have achieved significant economic growth and attendant poverty alleviation in recent decades have done so in the absence of Western-style rule of law. China is a leading example.

Others include South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. The success of the East Asian model was rooted in good policy decisions and other factors, not the rule of law as promoted by the West in bilateral and multilateral aid settings.

Development policy requires sharp economic analysis and forces political choices – for neither of which is “law” a substitute.   The tools for development policy making – including the legal tools – are distributional: they allocate resources and authority toward some and away from others.  

For development to occur, these distributions must put things into the hands of those whose return on their use will cause whatever we mean by “development.”

If we mean a transformation of the economy through market-driven agricultural expansion, for example, resources must be allocated to those whose use of them will have the greatest multiplier effect in that direction.

Focusing on the “rule of law” alone as a development strategy allows its advocate to shy away from making contestable distributive choices with real consequences.   This represents a retreat from the realization that policy making breaks eggs, imposes costs.

One encounters instead the vague sentiment that getting governance right, injecting resources into strengthening the rule of law - building courtrooms, buying computers, desks, books, training judges and the police - will somehow bring a softer, gentler, development graciously in its wake.  There is no proof of this.

The resistance to policy making also arises from the intuition that political and economic debates about what development is and how to make it happen have not generated a technical consensus on how to bring about development.   It is unfortunate that there is no recipe for development, but that is our situation. 

There are contending ideas, contending interests, contested theories, complex theories.   Not knowing, we must decide.  We might even experiment.  This is our shared responsibility. It is up to us.

idi.gaparayi@gmail.com

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