Rwanda: an agrarian developmental state?

‘Getting the politics right’ in smallholder agriculture is an important first step in Rwanda’s development, but it needs to be sustained for a generation

Graham HarrisonAt the heart of the burgeoning literature on Rwanda is the country’s rapid economic growth since the early 2000s, and its accompaniment by a raft of other encouraging development statistics.  GDP per capita has grown from US$575 in 1995 to almost US$1,170 in 2012, whilst average GNI growth has been about 8% per annum for the last decade.  There has been a reduction in the poverty headcount ratio from higher than 60.0% in 2000 to 44.9% in 2010-11. In addition, there are a range of other social indicators that have also demonstrated considerable improvement.

There are of course many good reasons to question the accuracy of these various figures. Nevertheless, there is surely something in all of these statistics that is difficult to ignore and this might boiled down to a simple statement: since the genocide, and especially since the early 2000s, Rwanda has made remarkable steps to generate a dynamic of economic growth.  As such, this requires both a measure of recognition and to be taken seriously.

Agricultural change reflects the overall positive tenor of Rwanda’s statistical imprint. Between 2007 and 2011 production of maize, wheat and cassava tripled, the production of beans doubled, and that of rice and Irish potato increased by 30%.  Average yields per hectare have increased.  There has also been a steady increase in the proportion of the government’s budget dedicated to agriculture, rising by approximately 10% per year.  What is more, beyond the figures, one can identify from the mid-2000s onwards both a reinvigorated political push behind agricultural development and the emergence of a clearer, broad-ranging and ambitious agricultural strategy.

There are various reasons for this.  Firstly, agriculture remains the core of the economy, providing the basis for the livelihoods of three-quarters of the Rwandan population.  It stands to reason therefore that any attempts to reduce poverty, generate growth or make legitimating claims to be acting ‘developmentally’ must be based in an agrarian strategy.

Secondly, Rwanda’s rural society is a political challenge for its government which, at its highest levels, is staffed by urbanites and diasporas for whom rural communities are the object of intervention.  In a phrase, peasant society is a problem to be solved.  Furthermore, there is a strong belief in the Rwandan government that development is the solution not only to issues of poverty and economic vulnerability, but also to high-order challenges to sovereignty.  Specifically, development in agriculture can make rural communities less likely to rebel or reject government fiat.  Development is also seen as the means to engineer national unity which, in Rwanda, is code for a political project to remove ethnicity from political discourse.

In sum, Rwanda’s government has strong political motives to take agricultural development seriously – both for development as a good in itself and as a means to ensure basic legitimacy and security in a difficult time.

But one can hardly say circumstances are auspicious.  Rwanda is a small land-locked country. Its cultivable land is largely used and often used intensively.  In a longer view, one should recognise that Rwanda’s rural societies have been through an exceptional and severe set of dislocations and violent events that have been genuinely traumatic for its people and their livelihoods.  One might, then, characterise Rwanda’s agricultural transformation as taking place in exceptionally austere circumstances, but driven by a muscular and purposeful government.

I characterise the outcome of this as an ‘agrarian developmental state’ based in an intensification of agricultural production, oriented around two core strategies: chain integration and upgrading.  Chain integration is a strategy to intensify the connections between smallholder farming and upstream/downstream agents, such as seed and fertilizer suppliers, warehousers, processors and packers.  Chain upgrading involves a process of increased productivity and quality of crops achieved through higher levels of chemical inputs and the rolling out of new crops and cultivation methods.  These strategies have been realised through a set of state agencies and aligned donors which are the drivers of increased outputs from agriculture.

The strategy is based on a particular vision of rural society in which smallholders shift their production into co-operatives.  There are over 5,000 agricultural co-operatives in Rwanda and, although their organisational forms vary, the common premise of co-operativisation is that small-scale farmers with scattered lands can be re-imagined as ‘collective entrepreneurs’ whereby peasants commit (or are committed to) a business plan underpinned by contracts with private agencies, plans to increase outputs, indicative investment plans and in some cases (such as coffee) great efforts put into branding.

If this is the core of Rwanda’s agrarian development strategy, in what ways is it ‘developmental’?   Firstly, as I have identified, it’s based in a strong sense of political will within which agricultural development is not just ‘a good thing’, but also a way to manage or even resolve enduring major-order issues concerning state sovereignty, political legitimacy and stability.  This kind of political imperative is common in ‘developmental states’ where development matters in itself and for its contribution to questions of statehood.

Secondly, this agrarian developmentalism is not grounded in a ‘bottom up’ or ‘rights-based’ approach to development.  Rather, it is based in a medium-term vision of agrarian transition; it is articulated impatiently, focused very much on targets and performance management. This, again, is a common trait in developmental state histories: they make plans that are urgent and transformative.

Thirdly, the strategy is embedded in a broader macroeconomic strategy that is economically liberal in its fundamentals, focused on export success and based on a strong faith that businesses have key roles in pushing chain integration and upgrading.  In this sense, Rwanda’s developmentalism resembles the notion of a ‘flexible developmental state’ in which ‘getting the prices wrong’ is replaced by more of a ‘shadow pricing’ approach in which specific interventions aim to generate markets and incentivise supply and competition. This is not a set of interventions that will lead to a root-and-branch structural transformation.

Finally, and following on from this, it’s worth noting that Rwanda’s agrarian strategy is a reasonable one within its own historical context, but nevertheless cannot be expected to address all of Rwanda’s development challenges.  This is perhaps the greatest development challenge, not only for Rwanda but for many other countries attempting bolder, ‘post neoliberal’, forms of development.

The lesson is clear: starting a process of growth and transformation is a remarkable achievement, but sustaining it for a generation in the face of serial contingencies and ongoing strategic decisions is a challenge of even greater difficulty.