Rwanda could teach U.S. about collaboration

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What a can the United States learn from Rwanda?  It would seem, little. The U.S. is a large, industrialized nation, with nearly 325,000,000 people, a gross domestic product of $18 trillion, and an average life expectancy of 78 years. Rwanda is a tiny, developing country of only 11 million people, with a poor infrastructure and insufficient access to electricity, and an average life expectancy of 64.5 years.

More about what we can learn from Rwanda in a minute. First, let’s review Rwanda’s 1994 civil war, when the Hutu majority tried to exterminate the Tutsi minority. In just 100 days, nearly one million people were slaughtered. The weapon of choice was the machete.

Rwanda has since purposefully endeavored to promote unity and forgiveness. The process is called Umuganda, where everyone—including those who took part in the slaughter and those who survived it—work side by side on community projects. Participation is mandatory. “Umuganda is about the culture of working together and helping each other to build this country,” said Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda.

Rwanda has also implemented a restorative justice program, where those who participated in the genocide can be released from jail if they seek forgiveness from the survivors whose family members were killed. There are villages where former killers and survivors eat and work together, a process that required years of effort.

What’s the connection to the U.S.? We may not be hacking each other with machetes, but we suffer from a divisiveness that is harmful in other ways. We’re at the point where we cannot even tolerate different points of view. The University California at Berkeley cancelled a guest appearance on April 27 by conservative writer, Ann Coulter, for fear her appearance would lead to violence.

The Coulter controversy followed violent clashes between supporters of President Donald Trump and his left-wing critics at a pro-Trump rally in the city of Berkeley. Apparently, the ballot box does not end disputes. Fighting in the streets over politically ideology is becoming acceptable.

Then again, the political machine we have accepted has set the tone. Congressional districts are purposefully drawn to favor the majority party. National unity and giving a voice to everyone were not the goal in creating these districts. Subjugating the minority was.

A Dispatch editorial illustrated how Ohio’s congressional districts split county boundaries 54 times, and seven counties are split among three or more districts. The ninth district, a thin strip of land that crosses the northern portion of five counties bordering the lake, is known as the “snake by the lake.” Whatever was necessary to maintain the majority in power was the order of the day when the districts were created.

Members of opposing political parties don’t talk with other. Instead, they talk at each other with carefully crafted sound bites. While legislators might speak with courtesy on the House or Senate floor, it’s a different story outside where they forget about the issues and pillory their opponents.

Regrettably, President Trump has contributed to the problem. Rather than attend the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner on April 29, he spoke at a political rally in Harrsiburg, Pa., where he told the crowd, “I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be … spending my evening with all of you and with a much, much larger crowd and much better people, right?” Since when did the people in Harrisburg become better people than those in Washington, D.C., and why is the president unabashed about criticizing the people in his own neighborhood?

The hate that exists is palpable. People are beaten at rallies, and banners display hate speech. But divisive talk does only one thing: it spawns more division and more anger. Nothing good comes of it. Ever.

The only way to change things is to break the cycle. Instead of talking at an opponent, you have to learn to listen to your opponent. Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” instructs us to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

A marvelous thing happens when you apply Covey’s paradigm: you see your opponent in a new light. You appreciate his point of view and see him as a human being who has worth, not some miserable cur who you feel justified denigrating.

Respect starts to enter the relationship, and suddenly things change. Now, you and your opponent can move to common ground and perhaps find a solution. Division gives way to collaboration. Progress follows.

It’s a lesson the people in Rwanda were able to learn, as evidenced by the country’s growth in GDP from $1.3 billion in 1995 to nearly $8 billion today. Perhaps the difference is that 64 percent of the seats in the last parliamentary elections were filled by women.


Jack D’Aurora writes for

This piece was published in the Columbus Dispatch on May 7, 2017.


Also published on Medium.

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  1. Charles Rodenfels  May 8, 2017

    Hi Jack. Both Jan and I read your recent piece in Sundays Dispatch. Since we both spent time in Rwanda and have grown to understand the Country’s history, admire the people (especially President Kagame) and learn much from our travels we were pleased that you shared your views. The concept of Umuganda is something we can all benefit from understanding and hopefully practicing in our day-to-day lives.

    As for President Trump passing on the White House Correspondence Dinner….I applaud his continued efforts to shed the Washington norm…which I see has nothing to do with “contributed to the problem” of divisiveness. I am encouraged to read/hear any news of the current Washington Administration distancing themselves from the eroded noble intentions of the Washington establishment. With the liberal media completely at a loss for actually “reporting” the news since November 8th 2016, reading/hearing any of the Presidents accomplishments is infrequent. Perhaps the liberal media significantly “contributes to the problem”. Our Country needs to celebrate the intentions and the accomplishments of our leadership and the press has the responsibility to be much more objective in their reporting….that could certainly begin with our Columbus Dispatch.

    •  May 8, 2017

      Sounds like your trip to Rwanda made an impression on you. As for my comment about President Trump, his decision not to attend the WHCA dinner isn’t the point; it’s merely the setting. What matters is the ease with which he calls one group of Americans better than another. That’s divisive and not consistent with Umuganda.

  2. Brian Bachelder  May 8, 2017

    Well said.

  3. Dave H  May 8, 2017

    Jack, that’s pretty interesting. However making comparisons to countries significantly smaller than the US is rather unfair in perspective. Depending on the goal of the story, the US is often compared to countries of minimal populations.

    The US has thirty times the population of Rwanda. They slaughtered over 8% of the population. In US terms that equates to over 26 million to be slaughtered. A rather barbaric thought I’d say.

    We should and do congratulate them for a 10 times improvement in their GDP. But note, their GDP is about $700 per person where the US is over $55,000 per person or 78 times larger.

    In America we have the most freedoms compared with anywhere else on the planet, the most opportunities for everyone and likely the strongest charitable foundations and organizations that exist. You’d like to see friend and foe join together in a community Kaffe Klatch? Humm, how about starting with the Chicago Cubs baseball team matched up with one of the southside gangs for a little community outreach, clean-up and elimination of lawlessness. If that is achievable, then maybe you’re onto something.

    In any case, Rwanda appears to be a success story.

    •  May 8, 2017

      The next-to-last paragraph in your comments suggests to me that someone poured a sizable quantity of cynicism in your Cheerios this morning.


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