Prosperity is a right; poverty is not

31 May

One year is a long enough period to change the economic and social landscape of a place that it becomes almost unrecognisable. A great many things can happen in that time.

In May 2010, we wrote in this column (‘When a problem is a good thing’, The New Times, 18th May, 2010) about a problem of surplus production in Eastern Province that had farmers worried. They had answered the government’s call for increased production too well. The cry then was, ‘milk, milk everywhere but not a franc to be got’.

That was a year ago. Today what you hear is not a woeful lament about useless plenty, but a joyful song about bounty and benefits. And the evidence of the extent of the twin sources of the new song is visible.

President Paul Kagame said as much when he met the citizens of Nyagatare District on Friday, 27th May, 2011. He told them that they looked healthy and well turned out – no doubt the result of increased wealth. They in turn told him that was not all. They pointed to better housing which they said could be seen from the new, gleaming, iron sheet roofs of the many houses that dotted the countryside.

So what is the source of the better social well-being of the people? Simple. Better prices for what they produce.

Last year a litre of milk was selling at 80 francs – often for much less. Even at that low price, there was no guarantee that all the milk they produced would be bought. There was a disconnect between production and the market which would inevitably have led to disincentives for farmers to produce more.

Today, a litre of milk goes for 200 francs and there is assurance that all the milk produced will be bought. Prices are predicted to rise in the dry period (July-September) when production decreases. At today’s rates, average incomes for small-scale farmers from milk production stand at about 200,000 francs per month. The least amount of money the smallest farmer who produces ten litres a day can expect is 60,000 francs, up from 24,000 a year ago. In the last 45 days farmers had 176 million francs from selling milk, according to one of them. Small amounts you might say, but still significant in the circumstances.

These changes in individual farmers’ earnings are reflected in the district’s revenues. While a year ago the district raised 30 million francs in a period of 45 days, the amount for the corresponding period this year has increased more than ten-fold to 305 million francs. Citizens’ savings in SACCOs that were nearly non-existent a few years ago now stand at 358 million francs and are projected to triple by 2013.

Similar progress is taking place in agricultural production. Most marshlands in the country are being turned into rice fields whose production will reduce rice imports, feed the people, save the country foreign exchange and earn farmers big incomes. For other crops, there will be increased use of irrigation to boost production.  As President Kagame told citizens of Nyagatare District, profitable farming cannot be based on chance – on whether there is rain or not. It must be possible to produce with or without rain.

The changes in the livelihood of rural citizens have a greater impact beyond just better prices and higher living standards. Yes, they are creating a relatively well-off class able to satisfy their basic needs. But soon that will not be enough. They will begin demanding more than the basic things. They will aim at controlling the means to safeguard their new-found wealth. Which means they will inevitably want greater and more active participation in governance and economic management processes, and in the maintenance of stability.

That should be good news for all those groups who are in the habit of delivering sermons on democracy, political space and human rights. Here is an emerging class that should make their work easier. I am not sure that this will be welcome news to them, though. It will probably make them angrier and trigger more sermons. Were new found economic power to give Rwandans a stronger voice in the way their country is organised as it surely will, the various preachers would be rendered irrelevant. They will fight tooth and nail to keep their place because their interest is not greater democracy for Rwandans but more visibility and assured place in the sun for themselves.

Historically, groups have organised politically around common economic interests and brought about change that protects those interests. Political organisation and change have always grown from within. They have never been a result of external instructions. Where that has happened as in our own history, the results have been disastrous because the premises of political organisation were false. Yet we are still getting directives about how to organise our society, what areas to put emphasis on, and so on.

Creation of wealth is apparently not a priority for the unordained preachers. For Rwandans it is. And they have shown it is more than wealth. It gives them dignity and a voice in the affairs of their country.

That wealth is being created and Rwandans do not live in abject poverty as some fugitive Rwandans wish is clear.  The people of Nyagatare and other districts have sent a strong rebuke to those who thrive on the poverty of others. As President Kagame so aptly put it, poverty is not a right; prosperity is.

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