Public sector reform in Rwanda is driven by a legitimation strategy

2nd June 2016

Our guest Blog highlights work from Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID), based at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester.

Benjamin Chemouni is the country researcher for Rwanda in ESID’s project on comparative public sector reform in Ghana, Malawi, Rwanda and Uganda. This project is centred on the political economy of reform in the sectors of public sector planning, civil service management, public finance, auditing, and anti-corruption. Here, in an interview with Anna Webster, ESID's Communications & Uptake Officer, Benjamin shares fascinating insights into his research.

I am very excited by the case of Rwanda which, I believe, is exceptional among African countries, in terms of what has been achieved and especially the pace at which it has been achieved. In terms of work on state effectiveness, I think Rwanda is a new frontier, empirically and theoretically, and needs much more analysis. However, good documentation of it is quite difficult. Empirically, the institutional memory is quite poor in Rwanda. Theoretically, it is challenging to understand the tension between a restricted political space and limited bottom-up accountability, on the one hand, and development that seems quite broad and inclusive, on the other.

When the new Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government took office in July 1994 and ended the genocide against the Tutsi ethnic group, the country was devastated and the state had collapsed. Twenty years later, the government has rebuilt an effective state, able to implement bold development policies. Central to this process is the continuous public sector reform (PSR) that has resulted in a relatively non-corrupt, capable and coordinated bureaucracy which makes efficient use of public and donors’ funds.\\

To understand this trajectory, I argue that PSR was driven by the legitimation strategy of the RPF. The legitimacy of the ruling RPF hinges on having an effective, non-corrupt and impartial state able to deliver performance and show that the RPF rules in the interest of all Rwandans. For that, the RPF needs state machinery capable of managing, at best, scarce resources. This is reinforced by a strong ideological preference for self-reliance, which means that Rwanda would love eventually to be independent from donors.

So the RPF have followed a legitimation strategy of cutting corruption, and creating an effective and efficient state. The elite know that corruption and an ineffective state would jeopardise their political survival in the long run. This process has been facilitated by the hegemony of the RPF in the political space, which gives this autonomous, cohesive leadership a long time horizon and shelters it from excessive clientelist demands.

Implications for donors

PSR in Africa had been failing for the past 20 years. Rwanda’s recent big success story bucks the trend on the African continent. My analysis of public sector reform (PSR) in Rwanda over the past 10-15 years gives a good understanding of how reforms have happened historically.

If one accep\\ts that inclusive development is political survival in Rwanda, the commitment to PSR becomes understandable. PSR is crucial, as it is a tool for performance and for demonstrating impartiality to the population. It is also a tool to court donors. Furthermore, PSR is underpinned by a strong ideology of national reconstruction and self-reliance, that calls for the efficient use of the state resources.

It is consequently unsurprising that public sector reforms have mostly been initiated by the Rwandan government or, when initiated by donors, have quickly been owned by the government. The government has followed a systematic, problem-driven approach to PSR, tackling all the sectors at the same time.

Despite this strong government ownership, donors have a leeway for action in Rwanda. This leeway is not in changing the structure of incentives of the ruling elite, which originates in Rwanda’s recent history, but in engaging in advocacy and showing the government how a given reform is aligned to its objective of legitimation. Yet this is not without challenges. For example, one issue is that donors might be reluctant to touch on the most politically sensitive aspects of PSR, such as the importance of local participation in policy planning.

Looking to the future, the key issue is whether the everyday norms instilled by PSR in the bureaucracy can be respected independently of pressure from the top, and consequently survive any change of leadership.

This Blog and further information on ESID can be here.