Of citizens’ charter, corruption and change of attitudes

21 Feb

Last week saw the launch of a citizens’ charter in Kigali, ostensibly to make it easier for Rwandans to ask for and get services without a hassle. The minister of public service and labour said at the launch that when people know what services they expect and who should give it to them, and what their rights are, they will be able to demand a better deal.

The charter is, of course, a good thing in so far as it is one of those things that should make it impossible for service providers to plead ignorance. It comes to reinforce other measures already in place to check corruption, abuse of office and general disregard of responsibility.

Mr Mulekezi is also right about rights and demands and delivery of services based on them.

But will the charter and a statement of the obvious by the minister improve service delivery? Probably marginally.

The issue is not whether citizens know their rights and how and where to get services. They know all that and they actually press for them. But they don’t always get them. That’s the question.

You only have to be at some of President Paul Kagame’s visits upcountry and listen to the questions the people ask to know where the problem is.

In almost every case, it is the local leaders, or different organs of the state, or even the private sector that are supposed to serve the people that fail them. And when the president asks why such and such has not been done and gets unclear mumbling from those who should have addressed the citizens’ concerns in the first place, you will appreciate the exasperation he sometimes feels.

You cannot convince anyone that these leaders do not know what their responsibilities are. Nor can you be persuaded by pleas of limited resources because some of the questions do not require such means. All that is often needed is the willingness to listen and to act – decisively and expeditiously. Instead people are kept on the road for a long time in the hope that they will get tired and give up. And some of them do.

So the question is not to know whether it is nobler to render services to those that they are due. Nor is the inaction a result of a crisis of conscience that makes those responsible to act one way or the other. It is something else which the charter should be addressing.

Returning to President Kagame’s question and answer sessions with the people – these are the most popular aspects of his visits (at least from the point of view of ordinary people). Most of those who complain about diverse issues are ordinary, often poor, people who have been denied redress because of their station, not because they don’t know what their due is. They are usually ignored because the leaders expect nothing from them in return. The reasoning seems to be: I cannot serve someone whom I don’t expect to scratch my back at some point. The rich and powerful, those who wield some amount of influence of some sort, or the well-connected get what they ask for at the snap of a finger- presumably because they have back-scratching means.

This is where the question is – an attitude to public service that is selective about who should or shouldn’t get a service. And if any charter or anything else is to be useful, it should address this issue.

Rwanda’s fight against corruption is well-known for its tough, uncompromising stance. Indeed nearly everyone agrees that corruption has all but disappeared from the highest levels of government. Equally, they point out that some form of it remains at lower levels. Denial, delay or sale of services is such cases.

The local chapter of Transparency International and the Ombudsman have persistently reported that corruption still exists at the lower levels of government, especially local government.

Interestingly, the day the citizens’ charter was launched, newspapers reported the arrest of a local leader for allegedly confiscating the property of people who had not paid their contribution to the health insurance fund. Whether this was a case of overzealousness or abuse of office, it remains unacceptable. Most of us can remember the overenthusiastic enforcement of the drive to eradicate nyakatsi (grass-thatched houses) and the pain and outcry it caused. No one wants a repeat performance.

Now, this should not mean that things are very ad at the local level. There are very many good things happening there. They explain the reason Rwanda’s economy has been growing steadily for well over a decade, why we are now self-sufficient in food production, and why health and education have improved.

We have set the standard against corruption so high and performed so well that anything short of that looks enormous and unacceptable. We have got so used to success that any slip-up appears like mortal sin. And that’s the way it should be. If the citizens’ charter helps us maintain that high standard, well and good. In the meantime, however, some attitudes will have to change.

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