Courtland Walker

Rwanda Journal: Dear Dave,

Editor’s note: NextBillion staff writer Courtland Walker recently returned from a 10-day trip to Rwanda. Over the next week, he will post reflections on his trip as part of the Rwanda Journal series.? This is the second post in the series; read the first here.

rwanda farmersIn reference to David’s request for further explanation on, “People don’t need electricity, they need jobs,” what was supposed to be a short reply, was not, but hopefully it proves to be an interesting read.In posing the hypothetical, “If I had a million dollars…” question, I was trying to frame a larger development issue that struck me during my time in Rwanda; how to prioritize investments for sustainable improvement of livelihoods based on observation of on the ground realities.

I spent most of my trip in a rural area to the east called Rwinkwavu, one of the poorest regions in the Rwanda. Almost every home that I visited had a dirt floor. Very few had electricity. All were made of simple wood frames and packed dirt, in varying levels of repair. In small villages each house was surrounded by crops in whatever space was available to the family. One estimate is that 90% of Rwanda’s population participates in subsistence agriculture.

Certain key national highways and streets in Kigali are paved, but most rural roads are dirt, making travel slow, especially during the rain season.

Almost no child you see has shoes, not to mention a change of clothes. Frequently they have suffered from chronic malnutrition and as a result have stunted growth; at times teenagers can literally look like eight year olds. I saw women and children carrying bundles of firewood on their heads that I doubt I could have lifted off the ground. Those children, either helping their mothers or working in the fields, are foregoing school. Hours are spent each day walking miles to and from work sites, small stores, and water sources.

I could write pages and pages on these kinds of details–though I worry that such imagery sounds generic to readers, myself included, that are habituated to tales of the poor in Africa–and that simultaneously I do a disservice to the kind and wonderfully spirited Rwandans that I met during my brief stay, by painting too bleak a picture.

Nonetheless, the point is that you don’t have to be on the ground long to begin noticing needs and wondering what can be done to help. Given limited funds and faced with a menu of needs, which do you deal with first? Will your solution be a one-off short term benefit, or will it have long term impact on livelihoods? If multiple investments can provide the latter, on what basis do you choose one before the other?

When my sister observed, “People don’t need electricity, they need jobs,” she went on to relate that day after day, dozens of people come by the hospital looking for work. On the day I visited the hospital, fifteen minutes into a tour of the wards, my sister was stopped by a local resident asking to speak to someone about jobs.

While her remark was a general observation on the demand she saw from local residents, its insight also resonated with my limited understanding of development, with what I was seeing on the ground in Rwinkwavu, and with what I would later read in the Vision 2020 document. Namely, that a focus on increasing the availability and productivity of jobs (i.e. economic growth) helps to prioritize investment decisions.

Electricity is certainly a critical part of a developed infrastructure, and goes hand in hand with many jobs in a modern economy. In Rwanda, electricity is one of many needs. But whether the government is looking to provide it, or the farmer in Rwinkwavu is looking to buy it, perhaps electricity is not his most immediate need. Perhaps a microfinance loan to buy fertilizer so his current work will be more productive, or job training so that he can find another.

I hope this starts to explain my take on the ’jobs, not electricity’ observation. I certainly don’t claim to be a development economist, and reading the Vision 2020 document, the Rwandan government seems well on its way without me. I simply wanted to point out that a focus on job creation causes an interesting reframing on the development problem that you see on the ground.

And Dave, to your second question, a much shorter response. A English language Rwandan newspaper held in high regard is the New Times, and could serve as interesting reading and insight into Rwanda’s progress.