According to the Rwanda Cooperative Agency, there are 4,500 registered cooperatives currently. This may appear a mere statistical reference, but it has broad implications in the local peace building efforts.
It is a general observation that cooperatives have proved to be the most effective way of bringing economic development in rural areas. The rationale is that grassroots cooperatives are better placed to find and provide solutions more effectively than well intentioned people from outside, including donors.
Note that the notion of homegrown solutions is a truism in Rwanda, and is steeped in tradition. Add to this the idea of the cooperative.
Traditionally, Rwanda has had community self-help activities where people have cooperated and worked together, whether in cultivation, building, or other communal activities. However, the collaborative nature of these activities, variously known as Ubudehe, Umubyizi and the much acclaimed Umuganda, bear semblance with the global idea of the cooperative.
According to the International Cooperative Alliance, the body bringing together cooperatives globally, a cooperative is “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”
This definition buys in with the notion that peacebuilding cannot merely be an outcome of, but also collective economic enterprise. There is broad international recognition and local appreciation that one of the major prerequisites for peacebuilding is successful socio-economic development.
People drawn into networks of cooperation and exchange become tied together by their practical economic interests. This is where the statistical significance of the 4,500 cooperatives comes into play.
Under the influence of the various interests and engagements told in the thousands of the cooperatives, the people begin to see issues of conflict between them in a new light. They forget what divides them and gradually learn to see each other as individual members of a family and recognize their own personal interest in upholding a common set of basic rights for all.
The cooperatives, therefore, form a set of foundational blocks towards national development, with peace and prosperity for all being the dividend.
Though Rwanda has just gained its membership into the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) (see The New Times, 1st December 2011), the national policy for the promotion of cooperatives has been in place since 2006. Likewise, the Rwandan law on cooperatives providing for the establishment, organization and functioning of cooperative organizations has been in tandem with the ICA definition of the cooperative and time tested principles behind the global cooperative movement.
Rwanda has also been keenly aware of the potential the cooperatives hold towards the achievement of Vision 2020, complemented by the policies contained in the National Poverty Reduction Program. The National Poverty Reduction Program emphasizes rural economic transformation, human resource development, and promotion of the private sector, and poverty reduction.
That the vision and the necessary policies are in place underscores the importance of cooperatives as an important complementing facet to the other economic sectors. This includes the recognition of community-based efforts towards fulfilling individual interests as decisive interventions in peacebuilding.