Rwanda could teach U.S. about collaboration

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.


Originally published at Consider This by JD.