Expanding the Space for Criticism in Rwanda

Continuing our examination of Rwandan development, An Ansoms looks at how the space for open contestation around problematic aspects of rural policy seems to have increased in the country. Both the national and local media, actors from within civil society, as well as the farmers on the ground are increasingly and openly commenting on flaws in the agrarian modernisation model. Such space for open criticism oriented towards local authorities is new in Rwanda. Though the question remains whether this new openness can evolve towards a larger debate around policy orientation.

By An Ansoms

Over the past twenty-five years, Rwanda has been characterised as a miracle in terms of post-conflict economic reconstruction. Economic progress was moreover accompanied by a rapid decrease in poverty. When from 2007 onwards, policy makers started focusing on the importance of the rural economy, this seemed to translate in concrete improvements in living conditions of Rwanda’s rural farmers. Between 2006 and 2011, survey data indicated a strong decline in poverty headcount. However, together with others, we warned on roape.net of the perverse effects of agrarian modernisation and professionalization on smallholders’ livelihoods.

Since then, the debate on the evolution of poverty has been lively. The analysis of the data of recent household surveys (2013/4 and 2016/17) leads to divergent conclusions. And indeed, the statistical game with various poverty lines and with different price data is not easy to follow for a non-specialist. The Rwandan National Institute of Statistics (NISR) concluded that poverty decreased between 2010/11 and 2016/17; although the decrease was non-significant between 2013/14 and 2016/17. Anonymous authors reacted with a quite firm politically-charged message, classifying NISR’s analysis as ‘lies’ and accusing the World Bank of complicity in providing a cover-up. At the same time, however, the authors provide a solid technical analysis on the same database – with detailed presentation of their syntax files – that indicates a strong increase in poverty for the same period.

Discussions on problematic figures

Alongside the debate on poverty, another debate is being picked up in surprising ways. For years, the problem of malnutrition remained largely ignored in Rwandan policy circles. Early 2018, however, president Kagame himself brought up the percentage of 38% of under five children being stunted (according to official statistics). During his keynote address at the 2018 National Leadership Retreat, he raised it as a major issue, and called upon his ministers to justify why this figure was still so problematically high. Since then, government officials, national media, and civil society actors are drawing attention to malnutrition, to potential causes and solutions.

Another interesting phenomenon is the acknowledgement of high-level government officials that they do not dispose of reliable disaggregated performance measurements. This debate is not (or no longer) confided behind-the-curtains. In fact, the matter was put on the agenda by Prime Minister Ngirente during the same Leadership Retreat. Since then, with the Minister of Local Government Shyaka, they have openly commented on the manipulation of districts’ 2018 performance figures; and they highlight the way in which this impedes efficient governance.

Increased space for contestation

Now that these debates are reaching out into the public domain, the space for open contestation around problematic aspects of rural policy seems to have increased. Both the national and local media, actors from within civil society, as well as the farmers on the ground openly comment on flaws in the agrarian modernisation model.

Within the media, the New Times has evolved from regularly reporting  on a variety of problems and incidents to a sustained editorial focus on the structural issues impeding equitable progress in the agriculture sector (see for example here and here and here). Also other media platforms have also taken up a critical pen. Recently, Igihe, for example, gave a detailed account of how local populations have decided to destroy banana plantations in the absence of a market to sell their production. Local radio stations – such as Isango Star, Radio Salus, radio Izuba – organise popular live broadcasts in which complaints about food shortage, crops and financial losses due to top-down regulations, etc. are openly discussed. During these debates, local authorities are called upon to react to local dissent. According to one of our interviewees, local authorities were in the past generally very reluctant and they sometimes tried to intimidate the journalists in question. However, the margin of manoeuvre of the media has increased to such extend that they are capable of pressuring the local authority in question to respond ‘on air’. Such space for open criticism oriented towards local authorities is new in Rwanda.

Also civil society actors – present in the domain of rural development – indicate that there is increased room for advocacy. Interestingly, the channels through which they negotiate are not necessarily the formal channels. At the level of each district, the Joint Action Development Fora (JAF) were installed in order to increase coordination between local authorities and civil society. But in most cases, the discussions within these fora are limited to configuring each actors’ role in the imihigo performance contracts. However, actors from civil society do mention that ‘knowing each other’ helps to discuss problems with policy implementation through more informal interaction. At the same time, they very delicately wrap their advocacy within debates that have already been launched by the president and other high-ranked authorities. From there, however, civil society actors do not necessarily keep themselves to ‘safe ground’. They instrumentalise the diplomatic framing in order to expand their margin of manoeuvre to point to the many issues at stake in the domain of rural policy reform.

In addition, the population itself is increasingly open about their opinions on policy decisions from local authorities that negatively affect their livelihoods. When, for example, the national ombudsman’s team goes into the rural zones, farmers use the opportunity to pass on their complaints in very outspoken ways. During a recent field visit in Nyaruguru in January 2019, for example, it took the ombudsman’s team an entire day to listen to local complaints from very outspoken citizens. Community members pointed to various issues, including corruption and abuse of power from local authorities in their presence, and urged the team to stay and listen ‘until we are finished’. Again, it is unusual to see ordinary farmers making such criticisms to their local authorities in such outspoken way.

Local authorities between the hammer and the anvil

The increased levels of contestation raise the pressure upon local authorities. They find themselves between the hammer and the anvil. On the one hand, they have been formatted in a system of ‘performance at all cost’. As mentioned in a previous blog,  ‘local leaders’ positions depend upon their capacity to prove results in reaching pre-imposed quantitative targets, not upon their capacity to critically assess the suitability of those targets, and adapt them to local level realities’. As a result this has led to a culture of ‘gutekenika’, a word widely used to refer to local authorities’ tendency to ‘fabricate performance’ in line with the imposed, top-down targets.

At the same time, however, decentralised authorities are now rendered accountable for the erroneous information they have passed up the hierarchy. Forging figures is framed by high-level government officials as ‘entanglement in corruption and bribery’ and counterproductive to the government’s national development ambitions. At the same time, people on the ground no longer contain themselves when they are faced with an outlet for their discontent, circumventing a direct confrontation with the local authorities in question.

Towards new policy orientations?

Do these tendencies of openness signal a new path, both in terms of green revolution ambitions as well as in terms of the organisation of the political and administrative chains implementing those ambitions?

As such, it is clear that the Rwandan government is increasingly responsive to reported problems with agrarian modernisation. In reaction to the 2016 food crisis, farmers have been given more freedom to produce crops for self-sufficiency. For example, the previously banned sweet potatoes are again allowed and the rigid imposition of mono-cropping has also been moderated. In certain zones, multi-cropping is even promoted by authorities as a sound agricultural practice. However, there is currently no public debate around the structural difficulties that smallholders face within the agrarian green revolution model and  the main explanation of policy makers for explaining malnutrition is still focusing on ‘farmers’ ignorance’ around a healthy food diet. Such reactions fail to acknowledge how imposed market-oriented crop choices and limited bargaining power on markets has reduced farmers’ capacity to diversify their food patterns. It is rather ironic that in such a context, the government continues to promote export-oriented production – now even targeting China as an export market.

In terms of governance, the reaction from high-level authorities to ‘forged’ local levels figures is more than lip-service. There is a real ambition to increase authorities’ accountability at all levels. However, there is still no public debate around the systemic flaws in the administrative chain’s way of functioning. The flaws are mainly attributed to malicious authorities doing a lousy job, without acknowledging the responsibility of the broader system’s top-down target-oriented rationale. There is very limited margin of manoeuvre for local authorities to prioritise local concerns over national ambitions.

Remaining taboos

However, the opened-up of space for expressing dissent around rural policy making and implementation is real. Though the question remains whether it can evolve towards a larger debate around policy orientations. For this to happen, remaining taboos have to be tackled.

First, in all our interactions with actors involved, people stress upon the absolute necessity to frame contestation against policy in a constructive manner. Also we, as researchers, have been continuously warned to restrict ourselves to ‘constructive criticism’. The definition of ‘constructive’ is not always clearly defined, but generally identified as ‘not calling into question the overall good intentions of national policy makers’, and ‘being capable of proposing alternatives’. As a result, there are two perverse effects. First of all, actors are often scared to formulate their criticism in a clear way. As one of our key respondents said: ‘We often think about how concealing our criticism, how to ‘wrap it’ in finding ‘half-truths’ that touch upon the sensitive issue without going into direct confrontation with authorities.’They have to find the best way to express divergent views, beyond ‘naming and blaming’ local authorities. As one of our respondents framed it: ‘umukuru ntiyanga uwumukebura yanka uwumutuka’ (‘the authorities do not refuse criticism, they are against blame/insult’ our translation]. However, these compromises in finding the ‘right constructive formulation’ often impede pointing a finger to the core of the problem. In addition, the obligation to come up with alternatives often puts actors – media, civil society, farmers – in a position far beyond the scope of their expertise. It is too easy to scale down a proposed alternative – and with it the underlying criticism – as ‘unrealistic’ when the actors formulating it lack technical expertise and scientific back-up to transform an idea into a concrete and realistic proposal.

Second, it remains taboo to tackle the fundamental power imbalances embedded within the new agrarian model – particularly when it comes the abuse of power by elites with political and military connections. In the framework of the demobilisation of ex-soldiers, many actors with a military history have been integrated into the rural economy. The Rwandan Defence Force – as an institutional structure – has occupied a key role in many rural development projects (terracing, etc.). When these projects conflict with local priorities and concerns, people are too afraid to react. A similar fear is present among the population when being confronted with the abuse of power by certain (ex)military elites who hold key positions in food commodity chains.


These are interesting times in Rwanda. A government – driven by the ambition to perform and to be accountable – is being confronted with the downsides of a highly interventionist agrarian modernisation that conflicts with the needs and logic of smallholder farmers. But there is increased openness to discuss. We can only hope that the current window of opportunity will allow Rwandan smallholders to find greater bargaining power in the overall policy making processes. In addition, that their risk-minimising strategies and local know-how are taken into account as a legitimate source of knowledge in tackling Rwanda’s major challenges laying ahead. In areas such as multi-cropping, seed selection, food conservation and nutrition … farmers’ knowledge and techniques have proved to be relevant and adaptive across centuries.

An Ansoms is a long-standing ROAPE contributor. She has a PhD in Applied Economics and is a Professor in development studies at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium. Her focus is on natural resource conflicts and challenges for rural development in the Great Lakes Region of Africa.

Featured Photograph: A weekly held community meeting in Rwanda (6 March, 2018).


  1. Thanks for this contribution. When you say “solid technical analysis”, does that mean that you have checked the results of the latest roape.net blogpost to ensure that they are accurate? If so, it would be helpful if you could state explicitly, whether or not you agree with the estimates published on roape.net. It is very difficult to have a substantive discussion about the performance of Rwanda’s agricultural policies if one does not first have clarity on whether poverty is sharply increasing (as claimed by the roape.,net blogs) or sharply decreasing (as claimed by NISR and the World Bank). .
    One important point of clarification: the sensational titles and introductions, which you describe as “politically charged”, were not written nor reviewed by the anonymous authors of the roape.net blogposts. However, if the facts are confirmed, the “politically charged” terms would indeed provide adequate descriptions of the nature of NISR’s and the World Bank’s actions in this context.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I haven’t reproduced the entire estimations provided in the previous blog, as this is not my field of expertise. However, I asked a quantitative specialist to go through the syntax files, and the person in question confirmed me that the analysis looks ‘technically very solid’. The assumptions are well-documented and there is a great degree of transparency in the way in which the calculations were done. It would indeed be instructive to have other quantitative specialists engage with the materials provided – including those of NISR and World Bank. I would be very hopeful if the increased space for criticism that I detected in the field of agrarian policy implementation, could also be prevalent in the debate on poverty figures.

    • Glad to hear that. The estimates can still be improved upon, and we would welcome scrutiny/improvements/corrections. For instance, we were not able to take into account non-food inflation, as we did not have access to a reliable data source for that. If non-food inflation was lower than food inflation, the final poverty figures could end up being a bit lower (although not much, since food is 2/3rds of total consumption).


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