NAIROBI/KIGALI (Reuters) - Few world leaders transform their own nations, let alone create a model that dozens of other countries seek to emulate. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who died this week aged 91, did both.
The economic miracle he masterminded is regularly cited by world leaders. And for many poorer nations in Africa and elsewhere, the Asian state offered lessons that were not imposed by institutions such as the World Bank or cooked up by former colonial powers.
Rwanda has come as close as any in Africa to emulating Singapore’s rags-to-riches rise, though not in the same spectacular style — annual per capita income is still roughly 100th that of the Asian state’s.
The landlocked nation of 10 million people boasts years of sturdy economic growth, pristine streets and donor praise, although critics of President Paul Kagame’s government say gains have come at the cost of political freedom.
“Beating the odds is a challenge we Rwandans and Singaporeans share,” Kagame told Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, on a visit to the Asian state in 2008, calling it “an inspiration for us in Rwanda.”
Rwandan officials say they studied the Asian state for ideas, examining its city planning and the way it built up new skills and trained its civil servants. But they try to avoid direct comparisons, given the vast differences.
Lee built up a colonial trading port located on major shipping lanes. Kagame’s challenge after the 1994 genocide was to find a way to rebuild a nation lying 1,000 km (620 miles) from the coast that was torn apart by a killing spree in which 800,000 mostly ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred.
“We have been looking very attentively at the Singapore model,” said Shyaka Anastase, chief executive officer of the Rwanda Governance Board, whose role includes measuring government service delivery using detailed scorecards.
One of the cornerstones of Singapore’s success was ensuring “they have a public service and public sector that is effective, that is what Rwanda is looking at too,” Anastase told Reuters.
Some changes in Rwanda are in plain sight. Kigali is a city of manicured streets, where groups of women snip grass verges.
More significantly, donors who often fret about where their aid money goes say they have no such worries in Rwanda, which spends donations carefully and transparently. One Western diplomat said Rwanda was “obsessed with performance management”.
Asia’s model for development has offered more relevance to Africa than the Western experience, said Patrick Smith, an Africa expert and editor of newsletter Africa Confidential.
“It happened more recently in a much more competitive world,” he said, adding that a vital element in Singapore’s advance was an efficient state and civil service. “It is boring, but it has turned out to be very true.”
But he said the list of African nations which could display such discipline in the state apparatus was still short.
Few have followed, suggests Smith, because many African states faced a “huge push for plurality, democracy and questioning of authority” which didn’t help top-down government.
David Ngii, a Kenyan economist, said Africa was too diverse for one model to fit all.
“Implementation is not a problem in Africa. The problem is consensus,” he added. “When you hear implementation, what it means is people have refused to do those things.”
Alongside Rwanda, the other commonly cited example of a nation taking the Asian route is Ethiopia, a former communist nation once brought to its knees by famine but now one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.
Like Rwanda, critics say Ethiopia’s government crushes dissent, a charge Addis Ababa denies.
Opponents of Kagame say the rebel commander-turned-statesman and his allies run Rwanda as a personal fiefdom, stifling political and media freedoms.
“Kagame is excluding a majority of the people,” said Etienne Mutabazi, a member of the Rwanda National Congress, an exiled opposition group based in South Africa.
The government dismisses such charges. Shyaka said such accusations misrepresented Kagame’s approach, which was driven by a determination to deliver on a vision with popular backing.
“When you have committed (to a plan) and you keep to the commitment, people tend to say you are authoritarian,” said the Rwanda Governance Board head. “We stick to what we have agreed.”
Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Heavens