You should visit Rwanda. Most tourists come to this east African country of just under 13 million people to see the mountain gorillas. But, if you are interested in organization and governance you should also follow how this country is developing economically and socially.
To be clear, I don’t believe nations should be run like businesses. It is simplistic, and I don’t believe useful, to think of citizens as consumers, employees, or even shareholder/owners of their government. But, when we look at government as a just another type of organizational form that is subject to the same forces and principles that govern all other aspects of group human behavior, we can find interesting parallels and perhaps some lessons that I do believe are not explored enough in our work. Here’s where some interesting things are going on in Rwanda.
A little background on Rwanda… The Rwandan genocide of 1994 resulted from 80 years of manipulation of regional power dynamics by colonial powers. Historians estimate that in the course of one hundred days, up to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by militias and neighbors. In the face of international inaction, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi group in exile based in Uganda and led by Paul Kagame, entered the country and stopped the genocide. Kagame became president of Rwanda in 2000 and just announced that he is not likely to seek another term in the elections of 2024.
As an organization designer, my interest here is how Kagame has shaped Rwanda during the past 26 years. I am intrigued by how he has applied many of the organization development and governance tactics that we use in the private sector to drive a 7.5 percent average growth rate over the past decade as well as significant improvements across a range of social factors.
- Long Term Vision: Rwanda has a published national strategy that is more robust and specific than many business strategies I see. Vision 2050 sets out the goal to be a high-income country in just 30 years. A more detailed seven-year transformation agenda details targets for economic, health, education, and social development. The growth of Kigali, the capital, is being shaped by a master plan focused on environmental sustainability, transportation, and job growth. What impressed me on my visits was how many people I met that knew there was a national development strategy and were familiar with at least some of what it contained.
- Engagement in a Shared Purpose: While the Rwandan central government, five provinces, and 30 districts lead implementation of the strategy, ground-up initiatives serve to build community and shared pride in the country’s direction. One of the most visible is “umuganda,” a morning of community service held on thelast Saturday of each month. Over 90 percent of Rwandans 18 to 65 participate. Each community decides on their projects (such as erosion control, tree planting, cleaning of public spaces, and facility repair). Umuganda harnesses the existing Rwandan culture of self-help and cooperation. “Doing umuganda strengthens cohesion between persons of different backgrounds and provides the community an opportunity to articulate their needs and express their opinions on various issues.” (In addition, umaganda, combined with a ban on plastic bags since 2008, makes Rwanda one of the cleanest countries, which many Rwandans also point to as a source of national pride.)
The reminder here is that shared purpose and common culture can’t be dictated or merely created through slogans. In all organizations it is best built through people working together at a local level toward some larger goal.
- Priorities: In the wake of the genocide, international aid and non-profit activity poured into the country. The government has used this money and goodwill to invest in many typical infrastructure, education, health, and social development projects.
What is interesting, however, is that government and business leaders are making deliberate decisions to leap ahead to match the most developed nations in symbolic ways. Rwanda has pushed ahead with electronic government and payment systems. It has a new, architecturally significant convention center visible from almost everywhere in Kigali designed to attract regional business. The two luxury hotels in the capital – a Marriott and a Radisson Blu – rival any in Europe in terms of construction and service quality.
Investments of this standard don’t just attract revenue and burnish the country’s image. These priorities link directly to the national strategy. For example, the two hotels are staffed almost entirely by locals and serve as a first-class training ground for Rwandans entering the hospitality industry.
- Accountability for Results: Rwanda may not be a democracy as defined by western nations, but it actually has a significant level of citizen engagement, low corruption, and relatively high government transparency, ranking 48 from the top of 180 countries (and second in Africa) by Transparency International.
Building trust in the government is a part of rebuilding the nation. Four of the mechanisms used to connect the work of government to the concerns of individuals are particularly interesting for those in the field of organization development. Two days of National Dialogue are held each December at the convention center to review progress against goals. Rwandans directly engage their leaders in-person or through call-in sessions. The full proceedings are broadcast and live-streamed. A Leader Retreat is then held each spring for the government to plan ahead. During both these sessions, government officials are publicly held to performance commitments. “Vows to deliver” are based on Rwandan’s traditional notion of Imihigo in which leaders take public oaths to achieve goals and are held accountable to them.
In addition, the government comes to the people. Public employees are dispatched to localities to explain policies and services and surface community needs. It is not uncommon to see a group of 30 people sitting on the grass in a village talking with a local official. This process has particularly served to give voice to women and bring them into political discourse.
Too often “best practices” fail to take hold because they are not based on what already works. All of these governance mechanisms have taken hold because they are rooted in existing cultural values and practices. Leaders have scaled unique, local ways to govern, rather than simply impose external methods.
- Investments in learning and competency development: Rwanda is all about “home grown solutions” – ideas and innovations built on local opportunities, cultural values, and history that can help to accelerate economic and social development.
The Made in Rwanda movement is geared to develop local industry. This is more than a slogan. The country is banning the import of second-hand clothes in order to develop the textile and fashion industries. In the agricultural sector, local seed varieties are being developed to reduce the reliance on imports. While these policies create short term hardships, many of the people I spoke to understood that they were part of a longer term development strategy.
To prepare students with practical skills to work in newly developing sectors as well as the current reality of small scale agriculture and informal enterprises, the government mandates eight hours per week of entrepreneurial and business training in secondary school.
Active learning, sharing, and openness to the world, symbolized by Rwanda’s close ties with Singapore, combined with pride in home grown solutions, is yielding not only economic growth, but real innovation. For example, Mara has just launched a high quality cell phone, designed and built in Rwanda that will be exported across Africa.
In the field of management, we often say that strategy, organization, and talent are equally important. I will be curious to see how the focus on individual skill development and structural economic policy will play out in Rwanda over the coming years.
Consider that Rwanda has a GDP per capita of $750 (the United States is $59,000). The country has few natural resources beyond beautiful landscapes and sits in a region with volatile neighbors. This is a poor country with many challenges. And yet the leadership of this nation has set a clear path for how the nation might grow and develop. Twenty years is a long time in corporate organizational life, but a short time in the history of a country. The Rwandan story will take much more time to unfold. A changing global landscape and any leadership transition will certainly impact the nation’s direction over the next 20 years.
Still, the recent story of Rwanda underscores for me how important the frameworks we use in leadership, organization development, and change management work truly are for shaping how we as humans live collectively in all aspects of our lives.
 I have long been interested in what organization and governance constructs can be applied across government and corporations. My education and first career was a city planner in New York City. For the past 20 years I have worked as an organization design consultant, mostly with corporations but also as a visiting fellow to the government of Singapore.
 Kagame is a somewhat controversial figure, and I would encourage you to read a range of sources if you are interested in the recent history of Rwanda and the region. As with many conflicts, it will take time for all stories to be fully told.
 My work with Educate!, a non-profit training teachers across East Africa to deliver business skills (technology, marketing, pricing, accounting, customer service, planning, project management, and teamwork) in an interactive and competency-based manner, is what originally brought me to Rwanda.
Managing Partner, Kates Kesler