Monday, August 1, 2016

Lessons from Rwanda: Preconditions for Prosperity By Casey C. Fleming

I will never forget how good it felt to earn my first paycheck as a teacher. After four years subsisting on New Orleans’ Po Boys, I could finally afford to enjoy the finer things. But I overdid it. I spent every last cent furnishing a new apartment, buying new clothes and treating my friends. I even applied for a few credit cards. I could afford it, I thought. When the bills started pouring in, I quickly realized I needed to change my habits and I turned to the Internet to look for savings strategies.

I stumbled on There I found an abundance of resources aimed at teaching students economic principles, fiscal responsibility and entrepreneurship. Realizing that the disadvantaged students I worked with could also benefit from these lessons, I decided to integrate materials into my curriculum. I ordered the DVD Victoria’s Chance, a video about the education of a young Ghanaian, and I challenged my students to think about real poverty. And so it began. Together we explored budgeting, free markets, and entrepreneurship all while learning grammar and composition.

My newfound passion for integrating enterprise-based solutions to poverty in the classroom led me to apply for a teaching fellowship with the Social Equity Venture Fund, or SEVEN, to travel to Rwanda to discuss, observe, and learn about how Rwanda’s leaders were also integrating such lessons in their own classrooms and economy. The following is a reflection on what I learned during my visit.

Michael Fairbanks, SEVEN’s co-founder, has laid out five “preconditions” that must be satisfied for emerging nations to improve their global competitiveness: leadership, moral purpose, tension, receptivity to change, and insight. Do Rwandans satisfy these five conditions? And do I? By relating each precondition to a personal experience of mine during the trip, I hoped to answer these questions.

Leadership—When one thinks of leadership in Rwanda, he or she can most likely not help but to first think of his Excellency, President Kagame. In Rwanda, individuals assigned to positions of leadership are held accountable through the ancient cultural tradition of signing an imihigo. An imihigo is a cultural practice in which an individual appointed to a position of leadership sets targets to be achieved within a specific period of time. If such an individual fails to meet the targets laid out in the contract, or to keep promises made during the course of a political campaign, that person is relieved of his position. Leaders are thus held accountable for their actions and their promises. I can only dream of what America might look like if we conducted our political process in a similar manner. In my own career as an educator, I have adopted this accountability measure to set goals for myself and my students while working at a New York City charter school.

Moral purpose—Writer and native African Eric Kacou defined moral purpose as a compelling aspiration that ignites the desire for change. I witnessed such moral purpose in Rwanda during my time spent with a conservationist from the Dian Fossey Foundation prior to a gorilla trek in the Virunga Mountains. Rwandans are committed not only to enacting policies that promote economic growth, but also to the conservation of its most extraordinary natural resources—like the majestic silverback gorilla. Listening to our guide discuss Rwanda’s approach to conservationism through eco-tourism convinced me this was an issue close to Rwandans’ hearts. Moral purpose is firmly established in the country’s approach to protecting its ecology which also allows for competitiveness in the eco-tourism industry.

Tension, in the context of economic reform, is the third precondition for national success. Tension refers to a sense of urgency triggered by a situation that has become unsustainable.  Undoubtedly, the tribal genocide of 1994 catalyzed the sense of urgency that has transformed Rwanda’s national identity. Some of my counterparts on this trip have suggested this event was a necessary evil for Rwanda to undergo the amazing transformation that has taken place since. One can only speculate. However, when I reflect on my time in Rwanda – and all of the extraordinary people I met while I was there – I can only be saddened by the thought of all those lost souls who might have contributed to Rwanda’s renaissance. What is more inspiring than the sense of urgency that exists in Rwanda is the people’s capacity to forgive and to unite.

Receptivity—The fourth precondition, receptivity, indicates willingness to listen to new ideas and embrace change. Nowhere was this receptivity more apparent than in the bright-eyed enthusiasm of Rwanda’s children. In my time as an educator, I have never had the pleasure of working with a group of children as eager to learn. I could not help but think back to my students in the U.S., many of whom are so easily discouraged and so eager to plug in their headphones. And yet here, in this classroom with makeshift desks, I witnessed a room full of attentive students waving hands in the air. They were eager to be called on. They yearned to be challenged. I was as fascinated with their thirst for knowledge as they were with my red hair and blue eyes. In the face of poverty and uncertainty, it is clear that these children are filled with optimism. While working with the students, I perceived a healthy balance of national identity and cultural pride coupled with a desire for western knowledge, modernity, and technology. The children of Rwanda possess receptivity in spades.

Insight—The final precondition is insight. In this context, insight refers to the knowledge required to make informed strategic choices. I had the privilege of meeting with many successful Rwandan
businessmen, economists, and entrepreneurs during my visit. A recurring concept that each speaker stressed was just how imperative it is that the people of Rwanda invest in themselves and begin to generate their own wealth. Overwhelmingly, they want to resist outside sources of foreign aid, often called “dead aid” due to its tendency to corrupt and create dependence. Yet I was encouraged to see how willing Rwandan leadership is to seek advice from outsiders when it comes to economic affairs. Based on what I observed, it is my belief that Rwanda’s greatest economic insight comes from its willingness to benefit from the wealth of knowledge available around the world.

As a young teacher, one of the most difficult lessons I had to learn was to seek advice from more experienced teachers; for acknowledging what one doesn’t know is more important than relying on what one does know. When making strategic choices concerning economic policies, leaders must keep in mind that the choices they make will affect the standard of living for years to come. Likewise, my decisions as a teacher will affect the academic achievement of my students for years to come.

What I have taken home from Rwanda is the fact that the five preconditions I set out with as mere concepts are already deeply embedded in their culture. The Rwandan people have inspired me to become a better leader, driven by my students’ needs; to search for moral purpose; to be cognizant of tension in order to impart a sense of urgency in the classroom; and lastly, to become a catalyst for change. I will be more receptive to different cultures and new ideas and will embrace these cultures and ideas with an open mind. I will continue to turn to others to benefit from their wealth of experience in order to make more informed decisions regarding the strategies that will ultimately shape the lives of my students. I will do all of these things for one very simple reason: If an entire nation is capable of undergoing such a profound transformation, there is absolutely no excuse for an individual like me not to do so as well.