Experts & epistemologies in Rwanda

My summary of the Great Lakes Policy Forum event on the UN mapping report provoked some heated discussion in the comments, focusing on the point about Rwanda being “a boiling cauldron under a surface that looks calm.”  One of the earliest commentators noted that this was a broad statement to make without attribution or evidence, and in retrospect I think I should have been clearer about why I felt it acceptable to post.  The GLPF has a no-attribution policy (see the bottom of this page), and thus I can’t specifically discuss the credentials of the person who made that statement.  However, if you scroll to the December 2010 section of the GLPF’s archives, you’ll see that several of the discussants (including the one who made that statement) have considerable professional experience in central Africa.  Given this experience and their demonstrated understanding of other political history & recent events in the region, I believe that the discussant did have an evidentiary base for making this point about Rwanda.  (It also concords with other observers’ reading of the situation.)

Commentator Raha points out a more fundamental epistemological question, however: “Working in the region for about a decade does not make any difference to me.  That’s the problem of the so called ‘expert.’ …  I’m from the area and I know what I’m talking about.”  This is a very fair critique.  Whilst I do believe that it is possible to have a reasonably accurate understanding of a country or a culture that is not one’s own, there’s also an enormous amount of contextualized knowledge that comes with spending one’s life in a place.  Between the sensitivity of historical memory in Rwanda and the country’s noted lack of freedom of expression, getting an accurate read on such complicated questions from outside is very difficult.  And of course, the mere fact of having an internet connection and a grasp of English mean that one has entered into the power dynamics of our unevenly developed world.  Chris Blattman recently cautioned foreign bloggers against spreading unsubstantiated rumors of violence in Cote d’Ivoire, and I think that warning absolutely has to be borne in mind by anyone writing about politics and conflict in countries not their own.  If readers believe that I’m using this forum poorly or dangerously, then I absolutely encourage them to tell me so.

However, I did ultimately include that statement (which I still believe to be supportable on balance) for a reason.  One of my overriding interests in running this blog and my Twitter account has been the idea of publicizing information about Africa and development that seemed well-supported, yet sat outside mainstream narratives about these subjects.  Over the past several years, Rwanda has gotten a great deal of well-deserved attention for its economic and social reforms.  Informally, an acquaintance in Kigali once described the country’s strategy as “growing its way to stability,” so that the economic costs of returning to ethnic conflict would be untenable.  There is in any case a lot of good work happening in Rwanda, and the only reason I don’t write about it is because it seems so well-covered elsewhere.  (Perhaps I need to be more balanced in that regard.)

I remain concerned about the question of Rwanda’s long-term stability, though.  There’s a sunny Afro-optimism in much coverage of the country that seems to lack context, and I can’t help but question whether Rwanda’s current stability has truly been consolidated.  Rwanda under the RPF has absolutely done better in recovering from the genocide than I think anyone expected, and I don’t want to make light of the achievement of maintaining peace for the last decade, even through coercive means.  However,  I also find it hard to believe that the hurts of ethnic conflict have been durably laid to rest in less than a generation’s time, even with gacaca.  My concern is that some political shock (like the persistent but vague rumors about the FDLR’s plans to mount an invasion from E. Congo, or even a transition of power within the RPF) might lay bare these ethnic fault lines and tumble the country back into conflict.  I don’t intend to dismiss or belittle Rwanda’s achievements, but nor do I think that it’s ultimately useful to ignore the real social tensions that still lie beneath the surface.

(Please comment away; whilst I know all the commentators on the last post didn’t agree with each other, I’m at the least glad that everyone had an equal platform to share their views and respond to each other.)

2 thoughts on “Experts & epistemologies in Rwanda

  1. “I also find it hard to accept that the hurts of ethnic conflict have been durably laid to rest in less than a generation’s time, even with gacaca”

    So what is your point please?


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