There was a time when First Ladies’ roles were predictable. The First Lady was the hostess who stood at her husband’s side at state receptions, or accompanied him to official functions and stood primly by his side and smiled for the cameras.
And sure enough the evening TV news would carry the picture , and the next day’s newspapers would have it half-fill the front page.
Once a year she served biscuits and cakes to homeless children as a sign that she cared for the wretched of the earth ( perhaps chance for less time in purgatory?). Occasionally, she was involved in some social welfare activities, usually as titular head of organisations in the welfare business.
These good ladies spoke very little, at least in public. We never got to know their minds; we only saw their pictures. Occasionally, there were some who reminded us rather forcefully that they had a mind and very strong dislikes.
One such would fly at a journalist and rain blows on the hapless fellow. It showed she was human, not simply her husband’s adjunct.
Those times are past. And with no regrets. Of course, there are still First Ladies who fit the traditional mould, but these are dwindling and in danger of extinction.
Today’s typical First Lady has a more independen, visible role. She is more activist and espouses some worthy cause of national development.
This is true of our very own Jeannette Kagame. Through her Imbuto Foundation, she has shown that she can contribute to national development in ways that were not common in the past and in ways that government does not.
Proof of this was in evidence Friday last week when her foundation recognised the achievements of young Rwandans. It is also eveident in the growth and development of the foundation itself.
Imbuto Foundation started in a traditional way- care for orphans and the danger posed by Aids. Then it grew to embrace the empowerment of girls through education. Then it spread to include all children. Next, the focus moved to students in universities.
The latest stage in this remarkable growth has taken the foundaton to the world of work in which achievements of young people are recognised and celebrated. It is, by all accounts, phenomenal progress.
But it is not the growth itself that makes Imbuto Foundation important. It is rather that the foundation is doing what government should be doing and doing it better and more effectively.
Which begs the question: how can the government, with all its resources, be upstaged by an organisation that is only a few years old?
The answer is so simple you wonder why this has never been done before. It lies in what the foundation does and government does not do. Simple.
The first difference is in the way programmes are designed and implemented. It seems (from the viewpoint of an outsider who does not have the knowledge of the person who sows a seed, waters and tends it till it bears fruit, but who only sees the result of the labour) Imbuto Foundation uses professionals in the design and implementation of programmes.
I hear protests that government does the same. Yes, yes, yes. It is the way they use the professionals and the latter’s attitude that makes the difference.
The team at Imbuto seem to know and like what they are doing. More importantly, they do not have to answer to irascible, ignorant and self-important bureaucrat who insists on being consulted at every stage of the way, even when he has nothing to offer.
This level of professional autonomy fosters greater creativity, fuels initiative and enhances responsibility.
On the other hand, the insistence on conformity and procedures favoured by most government institutions kills creativity, blunts initiative and drive.
The second difference lies in the manner of engagement of young people. When talking to young people, whether they are high school or university students, or young professionals, Mrs Kagame always urges them to be driven by self-esteem, confidence and a sense of personal dignity.
She encourages them to have belief in themselves and appreciates their efforts. Inspiring stuff which whets the desire for success.
What do our government officials do? They talk down to young people in their institutions, not with them. They lecture , harangue, threaten and intimidate.
This is their way of getting results. Of course, results can be obtained this way, but they will not be the best and then only for as long as the threat remains hanging. They do not harness their youthful energy and enthusiasm to attain greater productivity.
Instead, they dampen their enthusiasm.The result is that young people get frustrated, become unproductive or leave government service.
Another difference is in the way government and Imbuto Foundation approach communication. Imbuto have a sleek media machine. Government almost has none. Imbuto events are professionally conceived, advertised, marketed and managed.
Which suggests that they have a competent communications officer or hire a very competent firm. Government’s attitude to communication is shown by the way they handle public relations.
Every department has a communications officer, but they are of junior rank and their role is restricted to informing various media houses about events in their departments and arranging for photographs.
Finally, Imbuto’s focus on innovation is sure to find favourable response from young people. They are by nature innovative and need only encouragement to try new and better ways of doing things. Recognition of their effort will certainly spur more innovation.
In government service innovation and initiative are often frustrated by senior staff who feel insecure because of limited knowlrdge and skills and fear that they will be replaced by the younger officers.
Because they cannot grasp some of the things their younger staff do and because their bloated egos do not permit them to accept that someone else can initiate a brilliant plan, the more senior ones accuse them of incompetence and a host of other crimes.
Response by young people can take one of two forms. Either they will conform to what they find and fall into stultifying routine and descend into mediocrity in order to fit in. Or they will leave.
That is how government loses the best workers. Imbuto Foundation shows how to retain them.