What is the role of the government in our society? And what’s the role of the citizen and the private sector or the market and civil society? What should the role of government be and what should the role of the citizen and the private sector be compared with that of civil society to ensure sustainable development?
These are some of the questions that came to mind while watching President Paul Kagame engaging citizens in a question-and-answer session after delivering speeches in Burera, Musanze and Rubavu districts on his recent three-day meet-the-people tour.
There were requests from citizens as well as some government responses and policies that I believe, while well intentioned, may lead to a “beggar mentality” in the citizenry instead of the intended entrepreneurial spirit.
For as I will illustrate, there seems to be a perception and expectation that the government can and should do everything for citizens. This expectation is in all categories of our people including intellectuals.
And of course, some government officials also water this idea of “unlimited government” despite limited financial means.
This belief in the government can do and give us everything mentality can be discerned from requests citizens make and responses and policies.
While in Musanze, a trader told the president: “We want you to find us the market for our milk.” Similar requests have been made repeatedly in the past by individuals who benefited from the Girinka programme and others.
In practice, since it’s also the government that provides roads, security and, now cows, what will the citizen do when even the “market” is provided by the same government? Aren’t roads supposed to take the trader to the market?
And according to media reports, another trader in Rubavu told the president that “he needs a processing plant to add value to … vegetables” while another said that “he and hundreds of other dairy farmers are currently unable to export their milk to the Democratic Republic of Congo because of standards issues.”
On the surface, these requests seem innocent but they touch on the role of government and what political leaders can provide vis-à-vis what citizens and traders can do for themselves. Broadly, this also touches on how development is understood and pursued in our country.
Is development understood and pursued when government provides an enabling environment like good laws, security and vital infrastructure like roads and electricity, etc or government also involves itself in building houses for citizens, feeding them, buying shoes for them, etc?
This is a debate we haven’t had as a country and it’s badly needed. Remember, besides providing cows to poor families, through “Vision 2020 Umurange Programme,” the government also provides poor families with subsistence income, free education and subsides healthcare for the poor through Mutuelle de santé.
And while the government is also involved in building houses for vulnerable families like survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, not long ago, it was also involved in a countrywide campaign providing roofing iron sheets to families living in grass-thatched houses and, at some point “helped” individuals who had never put on shoes to buy and start wearing them.
The government is also involved in setting up companies in rural areas and encouraging citizens through their co-operatives to buy and hold shares in them. The intentions of the government in doing all this is noble. It is to offer a helping hand to citizens and rural communities for them to develop.
To that extent, Kagame’s leadership views government as a positive change agent that can transform the country by providing citizens and traders initial capital to move to the next stage.
While all that deserves praise considering that solving the problem of poverty is critical, I worry that, in the long run, instead of developing an entrepreneurial spirit in our people, this development approach might instead develop a “beggar” mentality.
That’s especially the case considering that everyone including media owners, traders, industrialists and ordinary workers seem to look to the government for “help” to develop. And this help, in most cases isn’t only in providing the enabling environment but capital as well! Yet, even our government still begs outsiders to pay its bills!
The best solution, in my view, is for the government to launch a long-term countrywide campaign sensitising citizens about their responsibilities and God-given intellect to develop themselves instead of always looking to the government.
Having said that, the president’s meet the people tour offers a very beneficial platform that not only helps the leadership to meaningfully engage with the citizenry but also find solutions to problems.
Christopher Kayumba is a senior lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR, and lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter account: @Ckayumba