From Rwanda with Lessons for the World

The United Nations and other international organizations are well-known for their core programmes as  they are famous for coining new words and expressions. The new creations can be neat and roll off the tongue smoothly or they can be unwieldy, ugly things on which the tongue can easily twist.
Joseph Rwagatare
Joseph Rwagatare

The United Nations and other international organizations are well-known for their core programmes as  they are famous for coining new words and expressions. The new creations can be neat and roll off the tongue smoothly or they can be unwieldy, ugly things on which the tongue can easily twist.

The latest from the United Nations is a neat one: “Delivering as One”, also known as Da1 in typical UN contraction.

Delivering as one is one of the reforms the UN has made in order to improve delivery of programmes and increase their impact. It is being piloted in a number of countries, Rwanda among them.

The thinking behind the new approach is not new to Rwanda as recent history reveals. And this is where some of our more powerful partners could learn from us if they cared to listen.

Back in 1996 Rwanda made precisely this point – that all aid support activities at that time should be coordinated and controlled by a single agency, and not fragmented through the different agencies and NGOs as was the case then.

The government’s reasoning was that there was little accountability and efficiency in control of the existing way aid was disbursed and projects and programmes implemented. There was also the obvious danger of duplication of activities.

At a donors’ conference in December 1996 Rwanda argued that aid funds to the country should be channelled through one agency – UNDP. This was a radical departure from the thinking at the time.

The practice then was to channel all aid and manage projects through NGOs. To be fair Rwanda’s concern was mainly about NGOs and the UN supported the country’s position at that time.

Still even the UN agencies worked almost independently of each other.

Has the thinking actually changed? In some circles, yes. Some, like the UN, have moved towards Rwanda’s position. Others still cling to the notion that aid and other forms of support are still best done through NGOs. Mercifully this is a declining number.

When NGOs had just come into fashion, they were wildly cheered as the ultimate solution to the problems of development. And so they grew like mushrooms.

They were all the rage. But like all fashion, the rage has since subsided and will probably become obsolete or metamorphose into another fashionable creature.

But while the fashion lasted, it attracted a lot of attention. NGOs were supposedly more efficient because they often focussed on one project or programme.

They were therefore supposed to spend all their energy, money and expertise on that single project. The result was expected to be total success.

This has not always been the reason for preference of fragmentation. Some of the NGO activists were propelled by a hatred for government, particularly third world governments. Of course there was also a genuine concern about the inefficiency of government. NGOS were a way of by-passing corrupt officials.

NGOs were, and still are, a vehicle for people with a specific agenda in aid-recipient countries. There are used to promote the interests or ideology of a particular country or group of countries. That was the case in Rwanda in the late 1990s

The Rwandan government pointed out at the donors’ conference that most of the aid channelled through NGOs did not reach the target groups.

They showed, with figures, that only 10 percent of aid reached the target recipients; the other 90 percent benefitted NGO staff in terms of salaries, allowances and vehicles. The government proved that the supposed efficiency of NGO was a myth.

Not surprisingly, the Rwandan government went ahead to reduce the number of NGOs operating in the country. The result, as everyone knows, has been impressive economic development, not decline, greater impact, not reduced effectiveness.

The government also obtained an undertaking that aid money would not be channelled through NGOs, but through UNDP trust fund where it could be easily monitored, its impact measured and where accountability could be ensured.

The government demanded to have a say in what programmes should be undertaken, how they would be implemented, monitored and evaluated. The expression for that today is ownership.

More than ten years later, the UN has come to the same conclusion that consolidation is better than fragmentation, that micro management might actually reflect a micro vision and that it is necessary to keep in sight the bigger picture. It is something that Rwanda knew a long time ago.

jorwagatare@yahoo.co.uk

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