Rudo Grace-Charamba Correspondent
Within development circles, it is often argued that most problems are not as complex as they look and also do not require complex solutions that are often suggested.
They are, instead, complicated by the use of solutions made without regard for the requirements of the locals and, therefore, ordinarily out of context.
Consequently, the target beneficiaries of these solutions end up spending far more resources on some unnecessary elements to adapt foreign made solutions to their requirements.
In fact, literature shows that one of the major obstacles of development in Africa and other developing countries emanates from over-reliance on externally-designed mechanisms and procedures which tend to overwhelm the host countries and rarely deliver any results.
Moreover, the associated traditional aid practices further hinder the implementation of reforms that are ingrained in their own country needs and context.
On the contrary, home-grown development solutions, typically used in Rwanda, proved to be highly resource-efficient and successful.
The Rwandan government drew on aspects of the local culture and traditional practices, encompassing umuganda, ubudehe, imihigo and gacaca to enrich and adapt development programmes to the nation’s needs and context.
This led to the development of a set of culturally owned practices that were translated into sustainable development programmes.
In this instalment, we consider the Umuganda, a practice of self-help and cooperation to solve household and community problems.
It is a form of collective action, participation and belonging that demonstrates a spirit of care and togetherness and is concerned with the well-being of each member of the community. The concept is influenced by the typical African values that underscore the essence of human togetherness and concern for the well-being of society.
It also relates to the Southern African philosophy of ubuntu, a translation from the Nguni proverb umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu which means “I am because you are”.
Such understanding influences village communities to act together in identifying and solving problems that they encounter in a spirit of caring and serving each other.
For example, a chief can call upon community members to contribute by working on any identified community need.
Such practice strengthens the achievements of individual families beyond their available resources.
In addition, one day in a week or month, Umuganda, brings people to work together and also to interact on community and national problems at hand.
Moreover, the notion bears contextual similarities to a number of indigenous community initiatives in Africa including nhimbe or jakwara in Zimbabwe, harambee (pulling together) in Kenya, ujamaa in Tanzania and humanism in Zambia.
The initiatives entail taking advantage of the joint free labour towards the achievement of objectives that contribute to the achievement of national goals.
Such African home grown systems and frameworks are underpinned by ethical values that include solidarity, enthusiasm, respect for the word given, bonds of family and clan tradition, respect for the hierarchy, listening to others, peaceful mediation.
Umuganda is arguably the most developed and functional notion among all and offers great ideas and lessons that can foster socio-economic growth and development.
Regrettably, in most of the countries, these indigenous initiatives have been manipulated by entities that encompass colonial systems, corrupt politicians, individuals and groups for their own interests.
This causes the initiative to lose its identity, sense of social well-being as well as the associated moral force to become coercive labour.
The modern day Umuganda, therefore, redefined the notion and revised its goal to emphasise purpose of re-unification of the people, poverty reduction and economic development.
Accordingly, the public, private and civil society sectors are working together for the common good of their communities.
Modern day Umuganda refers to a nationwide work day, scheduled on the last Saturday of every month where all other activities stop and able-bodied citizens, between the ages of 18 and 65, gather to do a variety of public works.
Such works include cleaning, digging, cutting grass, trimming bushes, planting trees, construction along with repair of public facilities, among others while individuals possessing particular skills also provide free service.
Armed with shovels, hoes, brooms and other tools, Umuganda participants head into their neighbourhoods to jointly perform some manual tasks, with the objective of improving on what their surroundings were in the previous month.
Consequently, there is continuous improvement of all neighbourhoods.
Evading this civic duty can attract a steep penalty in the form of a fine or even arrest, an element that signifies the value placed on the practice and its deemed potential to improve both the nation’s social and physical environments.
However, most of the participants are driven by the strong desire keep their beloved country clean.
Upon completing the assigned work of the day, the participants meet to discuss substantive communal and national matters, illustrating a typical inclusive and people-centred approach rooted in local tradition that to foster social unity.
The notion is credited for marked average economic growth rate of 10,7 percent for the period 1996-2002, 11,2 percent in 2008 and subsequently to over 13,20 percent in 2017.
Similarly, the country’s remarkable cleanliness, well-paved streets and general orderliness within the environment are all attributed to the notion of Umuganda.
Apart from ensuring perpetual cleanliness, the use of free and joint labour in public projects ordinarily reduces the associated costs.
Additionally, the associated decentralised structures facilitate the engagement of stakeholders in civic education relating to government programmes and sensitising them to assume ownership of the same.
Furthermore, the practice facilitates maximum participation plus interaction of political leaders and local communities, sharing the national vision which often leads to improved performance and service delivery.
A similar initiative, the voluntary National Environment Cleaning Day in Zimbabwe, where participants take part in cleaning up their localities, was launched by President Mnangagwa in 2018 and scheduled for the first Friday of each month.
The initiative has scored many and varied successes, notably changes in the management of waste by corporates, signifying the likelihood of further potential within the initiative.
Behaviour change within communities remained a challenge as piles of garbage remained a common feature on pavements, roads as well as on roadsides, open spaces in all areas and parks.
In addition, participation was rather limited as many often ignored the call and continued with their daily businesses.
For others, the relevance of the exercise was confined to just that two-hour period of cleaning then its forgotten for the rest of the month.
Furthermore, there was limited assessment of the performance of the initiative for purposes of learning and improvement.
The Rwandan experience shows that the traditional communal development practices can be reliable systems for influencing behavioural change and meeting the modern development needs.
Besides, they provide sound platforms for unifying societies, another high-level priority for Zimbabwe, through the associated collaboration.
According to literature, gathering together and exchanging ideas can effectively contribute towards rebuilding mutual trust while sharing plus understanding, or at least tolerating, each other’s values and attitudes, has the potential to strengthen communities.
Explicitly, such collaborative initiatives aids communities to shift focus from issues that divide them towards what they can do together to build a brighter future.
The initiatives have immense potential to nurture closer state-citizen relationships, facilitate the identification of different strategies for poverty reduction, elements that ultimately promote quality service delivery and improved development programme performance.
Augmenting the local clean-up campaign to include more activities, as well as encouraging enhanced participation has the potential to promote the achievement of greater and sustainable results.
It can contribute towards the development of a greater sense of civic pride among citizens.
Besides, the ensuing results have the capacity to motivate more individuals to participate and, in turn, continue to improve the quality of both results and people’s lives.
Dr Rudo Grace Gwata-Charamba is an Author, development Project/Programme Management Consultant and Researcher with a special interest in Results Based Management (RBM), Governance and Leadership. She can be contacted via email: [email protected]