Lessons from Decentralization in Rwanda


Various development institutions and Western governments have held up decentralization in Rwanda as fairly successful. A study commissioned by the government and development partners showed that decentralization had improved economic growth averaging 10% since early 2000s, reduced region inequalities, increased community participation, improved service delivery and made local government more responsive to citizen needs. (United Nations Development Programme, 2012) While the country has gained a reputation for being a development model case held up by many development institutions and Western governments, we find a few challenges that Rwanda may need to consider. Firstly, decentralization seems to have increased central government control of local governance processes. Secondly, substantive public participation in governance is lacking. Finally, there is absence of a top-down accountability framework for government officials.

Beginning 2001, Rwanda legislated and began the implementation of decentralization to address the social, political and economic marginalization of communities that precipitated the 1994 genocide. (Gaynor, 2013) The decentralization would achieve this by increasing the voice of the people to have a say in the running of their affairs, as evidenced by consultative efforts which had revealed that 70% of the people demanded more participation in public affairs. (Ministry of Local Government, 2004) This would be done in three phases: the first phase (2001 to 2005) would set up the institutional and administrative structures; the second (2006 to 2010) would entrench public participation in planning, decision-making and implementation of plans; the third phase (2011 to present) would consolidate gains, enable fiscal decentralization and improve on challenges encountered in previous phases.(Ministry of Local Government, 2011)

Greater control of local governments

The process of procedural participation through electing local leaders at the village and cell (collection of villages – collection of cells is called a sector) levels is fairly transparent and free of political influence by the central government. However, in the higher level, particularly the Vice-Mayor and Mayor positions constitute “strategic political appointments”. (Gaynor, 2013) Those who get to be formally elected are first vetted and put forward by contacts in the police and the army. At the district level, the elected Mayor and the appointed Executive Secretary who reports to the President are occasionally on opposite sides of decisions. Due to this, conflict of authority arises where for instance, the Mayor decides one thing and a central government official blocks it.

Moreover, government policy shifted from reconciliation and nation-building to “fast-track and equitable local economic development” to achieve fiscal autonomy. This shift has necessitated greater central government planning and decision-making in order to accomplish the goals and targets more effectively and efficiently. The officials at the district level implement national policies and district resolutions with the planned activities and programmes taking place at the cell and village levels.

Lack of substantive public participation

Community participation was envisioned as one of the benefits of decentralization as citizens sought greater input in matters affecting them. However, participation remains only of procedural kind (electing local leaders at the village, cell and sector levels) and through cost-sharing i.e. local taxation to pay for services and communal labor sharing. More substantive participation through engaging in planning processes, community agenda prioritization and decision-making is all but missing.

The Community Development Policy document emphasized the mobilization of resources and community effort in cost-sharing to improve their own development, with little emphasis on decision-making. Article 47 of the Constitution of Rwanda states, “… All citizens have the duty to participate, through work, in the development of the country; to safeguard peace, democracy, social justice and equality and to participate in the defence of the motherland.” (Constitution, 2003) Cell committee meetings for instance, are used for the communication of directives from the upper levels, which are then implemented through mobilization at the village level. Where the elected members bring issues to the upper levels for discussion, it is not clear how prioritization is done and how the final decision is made. Ubudehe, an innovative public participation forum, transformed from a tool of substantive citizen participation, to one used for citizen poverty classification.(Gaynor, 2013) Further the law is very ambiguous in entrenching the protection of the community planning process, and rather focuses on communal mobilization of labor and finances as participation.

Lack of downward accountability

The Rwandan government implemented imihigo performance contracts that are signed by all leaders at all levels (village, cell, sector and district) with their supervisors.(Gaynor, 2013) These signed agreements increase pressure for the leaders to meet the targets set by their supervisors. The government encourages them as a means to foster competition among communities and improve service delivery. However, increased pressure to produce results set at higher levels consolidate upward accountability, thereby reducing opportunity for top-down accountability and public participation. This means that district mayors have a huge incentive to perform well for their central government reporting, and little incentive to increase accountability to the lower levels. While elected councillors at the cell and sector levels regularly attend umuganda (communal labor-sharing) meetings, those elected at the district level rarely do so, and are naturally therefore more out of touch with their constituents.(Gaynor, 2013)

Even more concerning, is the shrinking civil space in Rwanda. There has been an increase in imprisonment, legal intimidation and attacks on journalists and political opposition presenting a dissenting view of the government. The government uses the Genocide Law and NGO laws to restrict liberties of expression. (International Service for Human Rights, 2016) This is especially true during elections when political dissidents have been forcibly disappeared and many have been killed. Without protections in the laws and the misuse of laws to threaten media freedom, a regression towards a totalitarian state is imminent. This may prove fatal and threaten the entire development agenda of the government.


These are a few of the numerous implementation challenges facing the Rwandan government in efforts towards decentralization. Some recommendations to the challenges include the following: entrenching and protecting the envisioned tenets of decentralization in the law; reinstituting nation-building and reconciliation as the underlying end goal of the decentralization process;

It is clear that some of the processes for achieving public participation such as the local planning forum ubudehe was structurally altered and rendered ineffective in responding to the needs of the community. There’s no evidence that the process was protected by law. Participation is now more procedural through electing local leaders, communal labor sharing and local taxation. The government needs to protect the gains made in engaging citizens in community development by entrenching this through national policy guidelines and in the law. Moreover, it needs to ensure that these are implemented. As outlined in the National Decentralization Policy 2013, the government needs to integrate the central government strategic planning with citizen prioritization to ensure that the scarce resources are put to the best use. (Ministry of Local Government, 2013)

Secondly, the Rwandan government seems to have relegated to the background the process of nation building and reconciliation. The focus is on state building through fast-track development. While this may be admirable in the short term, the government risks alienating people and regressing to the pre-genocide feeling of marginalization. Efforts need to be made to ensure that the voice of the people is heard in planning and making decisions that affect the development of their communities. Further, as Basabose suggests, the government needs to coordinate between district, sector and forum community dialogue in order to build reconciliation. This process will “help restore destroyed relationships among people…” (Basabose, 2015)

Finally, civil society needs to engage the government and keep the government honest. However, for this to be meaningful, donors need to step in and engage the government in guaranteeing civil liberties. As development partners fund economic development and growth in the country, they can tie funding to specific achievements by the government towards protecting the civil space. McDoom states that “Freezing aid, in full or in part, is a method for signalling disapproval of government behaviours that violate international obligations and other important normative standards. Enforced consistently, it can help build and sustain an international legal and moral order.” (McDoom, 2013) However, donors need to implement such measures to ensure that they do not end up hurting the same people they are meant to protect.


Basabose, J.D. (2015, June). Strengthening community-level peacebuilding in Rwanda. Retrieved June 26, 2017 from https://www.insightonconflict.org/blog/2015/06/strengthening-community-level-peacebuilding-rwanda/

McDoom, O.S. (2013, April). To Aid, or Not to Aid? The Case of Rwanda. Retrieved June 26, 2017, from https://unu.edu/publications/articles/to-aid-or-not-to-aid-the-case-of-rwanda.html

United Nations Development Programme. (2012). Local Governments In Eastern Africa (pp. 1-17, Rep.). United Nations Development Programme.

Gaynor, N. (2013, July). Decentralisation, Conflict and Peacebuilding in Rwanda. Retrieved June 22, 2017, from http://doras.dcu.ie/19184/1/Report_final.pdf

International Service for Human Rights. (2016, March 17). Rwanda: Participation and protection of civil society is crucial to development. Retrieved June 26, 2017, from http://www.ishr.ch/news/rwanda-participation-and-protection-civil-society-crucial-development

Constitution. 2003. Retrieved June 26, 2017 from http://www.rwandahope.com/constitution.pdf

Rwanda, Ministry of Local Government, Community Development and Social Affairs. (2004). Rwanda Five-year Decentralisation Implementation Programme. Kigali: Ministry of Local Government.

Rwanda, Ministry of Local Government. (2011). Decentralisation Implementation Programme 2011-2015. Kigali: Ministry of Local Government.

Rwanda, Ministry of Local Government. (2013). National Decentralisation Policy. Kigali: Ministry of Local Government.