• More than one million Rwandans have been lifted out of poverty but there remains a lot to do
  • The Africa Governance Initiative is helping train young Rwandans for future leadership
  • Grinding out incremental changes is a noble cause but the work requires discipline and focus

Rwanda, so long synonymous with the horrors of the 1994 genocide, is writing a new chapter, one shaped not by bloodshed and murder, but by economic growth, increasing prosperity and public sector reform. Not only is it one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but more than one million Rwandans have been lifted out of poverty over the past decade. However, there remains a lot to do: 39% of the country’s population still live in poverty and over 30% of the national budget is funded by donors.

To address these deep-rooted issues, Rwanda has embarked on a multitude of initiatives. For example, fibre optic cable covering the entire country was laid in 2010 to facilitate the development of the nation’s financial services sector. Other infrastructure investments have been made in order to develop industries such as tourism, transport, information and communication technology, and education. And reform is also under way at government level, much of it supported by the helping hand of the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI).

Government for the people

AGI is an organisation set up by Tony Blair to support effective government across the African continent. Tim Bromfield, AGI’s country head in Rwanda, recalls that the project was rooted in conversations between Blair and Rwandan president Paul Kagame. “It was at the invitation of the president that we came to work here eight years ago,” he says.

“It was just after Tony Blair had stepped down as prime minister and knew that he wanted to do something around African governance. AGI’s focus has always been about supporting more effective government and helping governments in Africa to deliver for their people. This was the primary concern in Rwanda and reflected Tony’s experience as prime minister – when you sit behind a desk in Number 10 and pull on the reins of power and not enough happens.”

He goes on to say that Kagame, who came to power in 2000 and was previously commander of the rebel force that ended the genocide, possesses an attribute that is critical to the success of any government leader: a clear vision for the country’s future. “We came on board to offer support to the systems and processes – the nuts and bolts of government – to enable him to deliver it,” he says. “For us, a clear vision is almost a prerequisite for us to work in a country. Without it, our projects wouldn’t really work.”

Its projects – AGI is also working in Ethiopia, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone – involve the deployment of small teams of advisors to work alongside political leaders and public officials to develop skills, systems and structures to get things done and meet citizen expectations. AGI has also been heavily involved in the fight against Ebola, as well as the cross-continent initiative, Power Africa.

Bromfield, who has been in post for 18 months, leads a team deeply embedded in the Rwandan government machine. Over the course of the past eight years, AGI has worked within the Presidency, the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Capacity Building Secretariat and the Ministries of Finance, Agriculture and Infrastructure. AGI and the government have also developed the Strategic Capacity Building Initiative, which is focused on delivering the government’s priorities and training young Rwandans for future leadership roles. To start with, though, it was all about gaining trust and acceptance.

“Like any outsider, we had to start by establishing our credibility and building the trusted relationships that are our capital,” admits Bromfield. “Without them, we couldn’t operate and so having them at every level of government is essential for us to do our work.” These relationships are only half the battle, however. Just as important is the need to stay centred on the long-term goals while at the same time navigating the day-to-day challenges of life in a fast-developing country.

“I think one of the biggest challenges – and it’s probably not just true for Rwanda – is retaining focus,” he says. “Yes, you have a vision for the country and a list of priority projects that will hopefully take you there, but day in, day out, having the discipline to oversee these priorities is tough. Grinding out these incremental changes is a noble cause but to do that work it requires a discipline and a focus and it means that people have to make it their day job and really make sure these projects are prioritised effectively and have robust plans, as well as a performance management system in place to hold people to account for delivering them.”

Next up

Bromfield is no stranger to Africa. Prior to his move to Rwanda he had worked for AGI in Sierra Leone, and before joining AGI he worked as a management consultant at Accenture, where he helped set up The Guardian’s Katine Project in Uganda.

“I’d lived, worked and studied in different countries across the continent but the experience in Uganda made me realise that this was the type of work I wanted to focus on,” he explains. “I also realised that the private sector skills I’d developed there were very marketable and useful elsewhere. AGI is able to marry this private sector consultancy experience with something I believe in and so I thought it would be an interesting place to apply to.”

Certainly, he admits it’s nice to be able to call a former British prime minister if he finds himself in a bind. Blair – despite myriad interests and commitments around the world – stays closely involved in all things African, it transpires. “He’s been to Rwanda twice this year and may well come again,” says Bromfield. “His relationship with the president complements the day-to-day work that the team is doing. His visits are opportunities for us to make progress on particular issues and systems requiring a jump start. It offers another channel of communication to raise the issue far and fast up the ladder, which can sometimes nudge things over the line.”

Rwanda, which aims to become a middle income country by 2020, offers no shortage of issues to address but, equally, Bromfield’s pride in the progress already achieved comes through loud and clear. The priority now is to set up the governance systems that can continue to deliver long after the AGI team has moved on to new challenges.

“AGI is not like traditional NGOs,” he points out. “We’re not going to be here indefinitely but we want to leave our mark. To this end, our Strategic Capacity Building Initiative is a good example of how we are working to build this into priority sectors – energy, agriculture, investment and mining – so that the government doesn’t need us in the future. In those sectors we do it by pairing international expertise with two or three Rwandans focusing on delivery, so that they are learning by doing. This is the legacy we are aiming for.”

Much to do, then, but it is clear that Bromfield is in no hurry to head home. “I have been living and working in Africa for such a long time, these days it’s more of a culture shock coming back to the UK!”

 

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