Participatory governance as a strategy for transforming conflict in Rwanda

Participatory governance as a strategy for transforming conflict in Rwanda

Never Again Rwanda, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation, is embarking on a renewed mission – a four-year program run jointly with Interpeace – to enhance participatory governance across Rwanda. 

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By Never Again Rwanda

When we examine the root of major conflicts, when we look at what factors led to the outburst of violence, we are always led back to governance.

Whether in Rwanda, where irresponsible governance and a system of exclusionary politics marginalized the Tutsi minority for decades, eventually resulting in a genocide against them, in the Balkans, where the Serbian government launched a campaign of hatred and divisionism between religious groups leading up to the Bosnian genocide, or in Cambodia, where a racist ideology was used to justify the murders of around 25 percent of the entire population, there is see a common theme. Governments that implement exclusionary policies and incite divisions within their societies are always at the root of violent conflict, which has resulted in the loss of millions of lives throughout human history.

When exploring strategies for moving beyond conflict, to transform societies recovering from a violent past, a rebuilding process must take place. This involves rebuilding communities torn apart by violence and trauma and reconstructing roads, homes and buildings destroyed in the conflict, but it also involves mending broken governance systems that enabled large-scale atrocities and building a strong, engaged and educated civil society.

The key to this rebuilding involves implementing the practice of participatory governance. This practice connects the public to decision-makers and helps guide policy to enable governments to do carry out what they were designed to do: to respond the needs of the people.

Instilling a culture of participatory governance is not something that happens overnight. Even in the most peaceful countries, governments struggle to engage citizens and maintain active channels of communications between the government and the public, busy in their personal lives. In a post-conflict society, where citizens have often been conditioned by years of repressive, top-down governance, specialized strategies to build grassroots participatory models of democracy are required.

How, in a society like Rwanda, where citizens have traditionally had very few opportunities to involve themselves in their country’s governance, can we transform that culture and encourage citizens to take ownership of the governance of their country and to see future of their country as their responsibility? How can we influence government leaders to be more open to working with the people, to listen and incorporate their views and suggestions into policy and to see it as a mutually beneficial activity?

Never Again Rwanda, a local human rights and peacebuilding organization, has been working for the past 13 years to promote a robust civil society in post-genocide Rwanda. With a history of working with the youth through critical thinking trainings, connecting university students in annual meetings with parliamentarians and empowering young people to understand and speak out about their rights, NAR is a well established, trusted civil society organization in the country, that helps to strengthen the connections being forged between leaders and citizens.

Rwanda’s national government has already made a number of changes to the way decisions are made, including a major decentralization process that transferred some powers to the local levels and seeks to promote a collective, citizen-centered decision-making process. It has also made efforts to involve citizens in poverty reduction strategies, allowing them to identify those most in need in their communities and to propose and implement solutions for addressing the problems. While it’s encouraging to see the adoption of these activities, there is still room for improvement.

That’s why Never Again Rwanda is embarking on a renewed mission – a four-year program run jointly with Interpeace – to enhance participatory governance across Rwanda. Working closely with local leaders and citizens, the program is taking a unique approach to building a robust civil society in Rwanda. The program will create spaces for citizens to collectively reflect on policies, determine their priorities, evaluate existing policies and come up with solutions while being continuously supported by Never Again Rwanda-trained facilitators. The program will equally work with decision makers to strengthen their use of citizen consultation mechanisms, establish and facilitate permanent spaces for dialogue between citizens and local leaders and will provide support in the integration of citizen priorities into new and existing policy and programs.

What makes this program unique is the use of a technique called Participatory Action Research. Rather than making assumptions about the needs of citizens, Participatory Action Research is an ongoing consultative process that allows citizens to assess their current situation, identify their needs and communicate their findings on the ground to Never Again Rwanda researchers who consolidate them for advocacy purposes that are communicated to local, district and national levels of government. This approach emphasizes understanding the existing governance landscape, while at the same time, striving to make changes that respond to the needs of all involved parties.

As this process is going on, Never Again Rwanda is also seeking to promote credible, educated analyses on current governance topics. With the establishment of the Research Think Tank, Never Again Rwanda has positioned itself as a trusted source for information and critique that citizens, politicians and bureaucrats can rely on. When signs of conflict arise, there should be more trusted, responsible sources, like the research think that the country can turn to for thoughtful, reflective recommendations to consider.

Through these processes, citizens will become more conscious of their role in governance, they will be empowered to communicate their needs to appropriate government officials and they will be equipped to resist manipulation by those in positions of power– like what happened in 1994 – because, rather than simply taking orders from leaders, they will be conditioned to critically evaluate and participate in government decisions, rather than blindly following orders.

Never Again Rwanda is a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation.

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