The Civil Servant

Yesterday, as we sat in the office of an affable and crisp bureaucrat from one of Rwanda’s ministries, an odd thought crossed my mind: he was the archetype of the Hegelian civil servant in the Rechtsstaat: part Aristotelian aristocrat; part Weberian rational bureaucrat. But he was certainly no democrat. And then I wondered: Is this a problem?

Rwanda is the “poster child” of sub-Saharan African development. It is making some measureable progress on meeting the Millennium Development Goals. It’s a magnet for post-conflict resolution and reconciliation projects. Its Millennium Village has been wildly successful at challenging development stovepiping. Businesses are flocking here. The Global Fund and PEPFAR have large operations here. As far as personal safety goes, Rwanda stands head and shoulders above the rest of the continent. There is no tolerance for government corruption. And for the environmentalists: non-biodegradable plastic bags have been outlawed. Rwanda is, in the words of the Weberian, “efficient,” “tops” on all the lists. He is extremely proud of these facts—not just as a Weberian, but as a Rwandan patriot (thus the Hegelian civil servant frame seems more apt).

As it is now, Rwanda was considered to be an exemplar of development on the eve of the 1994 genocide as well. The difference now is that the state is much more involved in what donors are up to in the country. Rwanda’s “Vision 2020,” the master development planning document, is the first thing that international donors are handed when they propose doing work here. If they cannot demonstrate how they can assist Rwanda in meeting those goals, with government input and oversight along the way, donors are politely (I am sure) shown the door. That’s how the Weberian put it, without mincing any words.

In my courses where development is featured (like my HIV/AIDS course), we spend a lot of time discussing the problems of donor-driven development agendas. Rwanda seems to have rejected that model. The development people we’ve met with do not like this. There is a considerable tension: after all, they are the “experts,” and feel thwarted when the government rejects their suggestions (for anything I suppose) that do not fit into their own goals. It’s not entirely clear how the government crafts those goals; from whom they get their input into what the people “need,” but that’s how it seems to work.

How is one to assess this state of affairs?

In most instances, the problem with development assistance is accountability and corruption. That’s why there has been so much of an emphasis placed on delivering services through civil society rather than the state. But the development experts here readily admit that corruption in Rwanda carries a very heavy price: ouster (and maybe worse). So what’s the problem?

This is a very complicated question. And there’s a paradox at work. Since the 1990s, the aid and development industry has been trying desperately to bypass the state at all costs, given the corruption problem. Yet this same industry confronts a dilemma when it readily admits that this government in particular is free of corruption. So they come up with a different complaint: that the Rwandan government is non-democratic and authoritarian (which in many respects it is). They tell me, for example, that MPs are pressured by the government to meet the country’s master plan for development or they will lose the government’s support, and most certainly the next election (since there is no effective opposition party in Rwanda). So that’s one problem.

The second, they say, is that this plan-driven government is stubborn as hell about letting aid implementation agencies do their work unencumbered. One possible reason for this is obvious: aid agencies were invited in by the Habyarimana regime in the 1980s and 1990s, and thrived here—unencumbered (Peter Uvin has written about this, in his book, Aiding Violence). And all but a few human rights groups failed to notice the genocide that was being planned and even rehearsed right under their noses). It’s no wonder the Rwandan government doesn’t trust aid organizations.

What’s the truth in all of this? Clearly I have not been here long enough to really know. But I have some intuitions. This government is quite secretive and (as we heard from NGO people) not tolerant of dissent. But at the same time this is not the same brand of dictatorial authoritarianism as was the Habyarimana regime. The genocide was the “solution” to the “problem” of sharing political power. France in particular did not want to lose its influence here, and was clearly complicit in the regime’s planning for the genocide to come. But the Habyarimana regime was also notoriously corrupt. And everyone knew that. But that did not seem to bother aid agencies and donors who were “free” to do as they please here, so long as it was “technical” in nature and did not interfere in the regime itself.

The problem here, I think, is what constitutes “development,” especially in the Rwandan context. This government is obsessed with planning and Weberian efficiency. But they are also fervent patriots who believe they are serving the common good, as they see it. That good includes raising standards of living for the sake of the livelihoods, health, and welfare of the Rwandan people. What is remarkably absent is the typical situation where non-accountable bureaucrats and politicians seek power in order to feed liberally at the public trough—and invite their friends to the feast.

Which leaves me to my last point. Rwanda is a “republic,” but not a “democratic republic.” In the former—at least in the Aristotelian sense—the state is run by “the best” in the service of the common good of all. The “best” here means those who serve out of a duty to the common good and not to their own good. But classical republics have authoritarian tendencies. That fact finds discomfort to our democratic-republican sensibilities, but it is well worth our time to carefully consider the intricacies of “development” as we ponder the future of Rwanda.

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~ by de cive on January 6, 2010.

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