Municipal Postcard: Starting from scratch


What would you do if you were creating local government afresh? In Rwanda Andy Johnston found a relatively young local government sector underpinned by some long-standing concepts.

Few countries are loaded with preconceptions like Rwanda. So, arriving in Kigali is a pleasant surprise. Compared to many African countries it is clean, orderly and safe. Rwandans hold a justified sense of pride in their progress since the genocide of 1994.

Part of Rwanda’s progress has been the establishment and development of its local government system over the past nine years. Compared to our confusing blend of structures in the UK the Rwandan system is admirably straightforward. There are 30 Districts (plus Kigali), 416 Sectors, 2,148 Cells and 15,000 Villages. Representation of these tiers of local government falls to my host on a visit last week, the Rwandan Association of Local Government Authorities (RALGA). RALGA is an interesting organisation, it’s fully independent and outside the public sector though it enjoys a close working relationship with the local government ministry. Rwandan local authorities don’t have to be members, but all have chosen to join, thus allowing RALGA to engage in advocacy and representation while also having the freedom to develop innovative ideas and projects.

The importance of the freedom RALGA possesses and its ability to innovate should not be underestimated. In order to turn Rwanda around in such a short time the government has ruled through a series of five-year strategies and plans which emanate from Kigali and touch every village in the country.

As we know in the UK, most national initiatives rely upon effective local government to be delivered and local government in Rwanda is young. So, the combination of ambitious central plans and a newly established local government presents challenges, which can only be solved by building capacity in Rwandan local authorities among officers and elected members. The answer? RALGA is establishing a Local Government Institute (LGI) and that’s why the LGIU was particularly interested in meeting the RALGA team. The LGI will offer a Masters and short courses, not dissimilar to the courses that the LGIU has been running for 30 years and it seemed that a partnership between our organisations would provide mutual benefits. RALGA could benefit from our experience of delivering courses and the LGIU would benefit from exposure to new ideas and seeing old challenges in new contexts.

One of the most interesting new ideas I came across was Imihigo. Imihigo is one of four home grown governance innovations used in Rwanda. The others are Abunzi, Ubudehe and Umuganda. Definitions are given on the Rwandan Governance Board website.

Abunzi can be translated as ‘those who reconcile’ or ‘those who bring together’. In the traditional Rwanda, Abunzi were men known within their communities for personal integrity and were asked to intervene in the event of conflict. In their modern form Abunzi operate as mediation committees.

Ubudehe refers to the long-standing Rwandan practice and culture of collective action and mutual support to solve problems within a community. In the Ubudehe Credit Scheme, each beneficiary/client will sign a contract with the community and will be informed of his obligation and commitment to pay back so that the next person/group of persons/candidate designated for credit will be able to get it from cumulative reimbursed amounts.

Umuganda can be translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’. In Rwanda, there is a mandatory community service day from 8:00am to 11:00am, on the last Saturday of each month called Umuganda.

Imihigo means to vow to deliver, it also includes the concept of Guhiganwa, which means to compete among one another. In 2000, a decentralisation program required a new approach to monitoring and evaluation. In 2006, Imihigo (known also as performance contracts) was introduced to address this need. Basically each mayor of a district council makes a personal pledge to the President and after five years meets the President, reports back and has their performance compared with other mayors. This idea has proved so effective and popular it has been rolled out into other parts of the public sector and is even used at the household level.

It would be tempting to consign innovations such as Imihigo to the ‘only in Africa’ box. However, the underlying philosophy of requiring a local named individual to make themselves accountable to a named individual at the top of national government rings a bell, as does the view of national government that this relationship is so important it should be a precondition for greater powers for local government.

George Osborne’s insistence on accountable mayors or an accountable ‘someone’ for devolution deals strikes me as not too distant and betrays a core truth about the relationship between different levels of the state. It doesn’t matter how smart, connected or sophisticated our governance system becomes, politics is about trust and that means leaders judging each other in person. Interestingly, it also seems to rely upon an old fashioned understanding of leaders as powerful individuals, a view that doesn’t leave much room for the systemic accountability and dispersed leadership models beloved of management consultants.

Andy Johnston is LGiU’s Chief Operating Officer. The LGIU visit to Rwanda forms part of a wider desire on our part to bring an international perspective to our work. If you would like to know more please contact Andy Johnston on

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Photo Credit: Dave Proffer via Compfight cc