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Rwanda to turn into Africa’s Singapore: A myth or a reality ?

Written by Aimé Sindayigaya and edited by Jules Niyibizi

We often hear that Rwanda is to turn into Africa’s Singapore but we never really question the possibility of this ambition coming to fruition. I recently read two interesting articles that were published in the Economist on the 25th February 2012 “Africa’s Singapore” and another one on the 20th March 2012, “Dangerous delusions” in which the vision of Rwanda turning into African’s Singapore was discussed. After reading the articles it made me wonder whether the idea of Rwanda becoming Africa’s Singapore is simply a myth or whether it can possibly be achieved.

The first article “Africa’s Singapore” takes notice of what I understood were promising paths for Rwanda to turn into Africa’s Singapore. Curbing corruption, best country to do business, quick registration of a new company and strengthening the property rights were among other factors cited in the article presumably putting Rwanda on its way towards turning into Africa’s Singapore. However, the article noted that there is a scarcity of skilled labour in Rwanda despite the government recruiting western educated members of the Rwandan Diasporas and opening up the labour market to immigrants from neighbouring countries such as Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Singapore also recruited amongst its western educated citizens and attracted immigrants from neighbouring countries. Taxation is another problem for Rwanda, as most of Rwandans cannot afford to pay tax. Domestic infrastructure is substandard, electricity is expensive and it is an ordeal to reach a port making transportation tough for Rwanda.

The second article “Dangerous delusions” explains that Singapore’s very unusual history would be impossible to reproduce for countries such as Rwanda which have an ambition to turn into Africa’s Singapore. The author of the article explains that at the time Singapore gained its independence in 1960’s (which is almost the same time that Rwanda gained its independence) Singapore was already highly developed, prosperous and a sophisticated entrepot. Singapore had its trading station founded in 1819, turned into a thriving port by the British Empire, hence giving an advantage to Singapore’s leadership to turn the country into what it is today. However, Rwanda did not inherit the same advantages. Due to its port, Singapore has had an advantage of attracting a workforce that countries such as Rwanda do not have. Singapore has also benefited from extra territorial advantage such as rubber, tin and copper, which Rwanda again does not have. Last but not least, Singapore is a gateway to China while Rwanda’s neighbours are nowhere close to China.

Singapore’s tale from third world country to a developed one is inspiring but one should admit that its history cannot be replicated like for like. In addition, the country has other comparative geographical advantages that Rwanda does not have. Therefore, in my opinion, Rwanda’s development model should not be limited nor solely be based on Singaporean template alone. Rwanda as a country that is still developing should also look for relevant, pragmatic and effective practices that have proven to work from other countries too. For instance what could Rwanda learn and be able to replicate from the Mittelstand model? Mittelstand refers to Small and Medium-sized enterprises in Germany. These enterprises are family oriented, specialised in manufacturing rather than services. They are located within rural communities of Germany and work to a great extent with their customers to meet their demands. These companies are said to have been contributing enormously towards the economic growth of Germany for a long time even when China started taking all manufacturing orders worldwide and when the ongoing economic crisis in EU that started in 2007 struck. Can Rwanda learn from the Mittelstand model and create a dynamic environment where local entrepreneurs in Rwanda can be incentivised to start small businesses that cater for national and even regional needs? It does not have to match the German model to the last detail but Rwanda could implement the relevant and pragmatic knowledge and insight gained from the Mittelstand model within its social and economic settings. Within its capacity, Rwanda could develop its own ways to promote entrepreneurship in the country. Another example that Rwanda should look at when searching for sustainable development in the field of urban planning would be the model of the Brazilian city of Curitiba. This is a city that was awarded in 2010 the global sustainable city award. With the use of few resources and great creativity, the town was transformed into an environmentally friendly city with efficient transportation, systematic waste pick up, a mobile educational system and most important a city that promotes active participation of its citizens. Can Rwanda learn relevant, pragmatic and effective practices from the Curitiba city development model?

Sometimes the best and relevant practices towards sustainable development could also be found in other developing and emerging countries within the African continent that are culturally more similar to Rwanda’s own as oppose to Singapore. It is a matter of searching for them.

I do recognise that there may be some practices from Singapore that can be replicated to help bring about sustainable development in Rwanda. However, each country has its unique economic environment, which is driven by numerous factors such as; its geographical location, its social, political and economic history. These factors are different from one country to another.

“Rwanda is not surrounded by the opportunities of East Asia and can be perhaps compared to Dubai” noted the IGC Rwanda Economist Laura Collinson following a lecture delivered by Paul Collier a Professor of Economics for Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford.

That is why in my opinion I would not recommend a Rwanda development project to limit itself to the Singaporean and Costa Rican model. The sky should not be the limit for Rwanda and the country should look to achieve sustainable development through sourcing relevant, pragmatic and effective practices worldwide in different fields; be it education, poverty reduction, health, urban planning etc. Obviously, best practices sourced from different corners of the world ought to be appropriate to the social and economic settings of Rwanda prior to being implemented to avoid distorting the country’s identity and culture and lead to unwelcomed wealth disparities within the Rwandan society. Otherwise, I personally do not see any harm in Rwanda becoming a more open minded society and incorporating in its development planning, knowledge and insightful ideas based on best practices applied in different communities worldwide. If incorporated in the framework of Rwanda’s social and economic settings would result in bringing about much needed sustainable development in the country.

Insightful Quotient is a website that encourages debates on how to achieve sustainable development in developing countries using an intercultural cooperation. Therefore, we welcome your insightful arguments that provide scrutiny and ideas that can elaborate further the analysis and suggestions detailed in this article.

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