From Rwanda with lessons – poverty can be rolled back

7 Feb

Small country with big ambitions. They can’t achieve them. That is how Rwanda’s plans to move quickly out of poverty and attain a middle income status are often dismissed by those who claim to know all about Africa’s development patterns and potential. They think they know the familiar pitfalls and believe that Rwanda will surely trip over one.

When you point out that there is progress and even show the physical evidence, they will grudgingly admit it, but quickly add that is only in the capital, and even then within a small elite.

 It now turns out that those ambitions are, after all, realisable and, actually, not big enough for the little country. Rwandans want more and believe they can achieve more. And all indications are that this can be done. Incontrovertible evidence – both physical and statistical – exists.

Of course Rwandans have never had doubts about this. And now there is hard evidence to back that belief. Two surveys – the Household Living Conditions and Demographic and Health surveys – published today show the extent to which poverty has been reduced and living standards raised in the last five years. Close to all targets were met, and in some instances, exceeded.

A few figures will illustrate this point.

It had been projected that people living in poverty would fall from 56.9% of the population in 2005/6 to 46% in 2012/13. As it is, the number had reduced to 44.9% by 2011.The reduction at national level was by an impressive 12 percentage points. This fact becomes significant when compared with the previous five years when the cut in poverty levels was by a mere two percentage points.

 In the same period, figure of people living in extreme poverty was nearly halved, tumbling from 40% to 24%.

Significantly, the reduction was registered in all the provinces of the country, with the Northern Province chalking up the highest decline.

Statisticians will tell you that these are very remarkable figures by any standards. Naturally, policy makers are very excited, with good reason, too. They can point to having achieved and even surpassed their planned objectives. But no one is bragging – at least not in public. They are level-headed enough to know that there is still a long way to go.

According to the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR), the reduction in poverty and corresponding rise in living standards is attributable to a number of factors.

The big one is the successful implementation of the government’s Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Within the strategy improvements in agriculture loom large. Increased production owing to land consolidation and crop intensification (growing of a crop suited to a particular area), more use of fertilisers and other inputs and better harvest management have led to self-sufficiency in food and left more for the market. The report notes that there has been a growing shift from subsistence production to increased commercialisation of agriculture across the country.

Increased production and commercialisation have in turn led to a growing agro-business sector.

All of these translate into more incomes for Rwandans.

Secondly, jobs offering higher wages have been created in other sectors of the economy outside the farm sector.

And as the Demographic and Health Survey over the same period shows, a slowing population growth – owing in part to falling fertility rates, increased use of contraception and education – has contributed to higher living standards.

Other factors include a continuing shift from living in scattered to planned settlements (imidugudu). Over the last five years, the percentage of people living in planned settlements has more than doubled. This means that there more people have easier access to services. For instance, availability of safe water and sanitation rose significantly, and access to electricity as a source of lighting increased more than two-fold, Planned settlements, coupled with improved infrastructure, means that in nearly all cases, distance to a health facility or school have reduced greatly.

Clearly, Rwanda’s development ambitions are within reach if what we see every day and now have been shown today is anything to go by. And we do not need anybody’s approval or permission to set our bar high. If we have the ability to clear it and set it even higher, what’s wrong with that?

Today also sees the launch of the second phase of EDPRS – the overall framework for poverty reduction and economic development. Our planners and policy makers will have learnt from the first and set the bar at an appropriate height. But as it is, there is much to smile about and more to look forward to.

So all the dismissive talk about pie-in-the-sky ambitions will not worry Rwandans one little bit. They are probably going to be concerned about the size of the pie that they can and will surely lay their hands on. Even the sky is not too high

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