St. Gallen, 8 May 2015
I would like to begin by expressing my sincere thanks for the invitation to speak to you today. The St. Gallen Symposium is a very special gathering, which I am honoured to participate in.
Let me congratulate the student leaders from the University of St. Gallen for the originality of this year’s theme, “Proudly Small”.
It has never occurred to me to be either proud or embarrassed of hailing from a small place. Nor do I believe that small entities are inherently better or worse than larger ones.
All groups, after all, are made of up of individuals, one after another. This is the deeper meaning behind abstract concepts like “inclusiveness”. Every person counts. What they think matters.
But there is no doubt that physical size is a factor in how a country or a business responds to threats and opportunities.
I will have more to say about this later, but I would like to start with the case I know best, the story of my own country.
Today, Rwanda is a country transformed, physically, economically, and socially. But there is no way to ignore where we started from in 1994.
When a hundred days of genocide were stopped by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a million Rwandans lay dead, around 15 per cent of the population. Close to three million people had fled to neighbouring countries, where they lived under the control of the militias and politicians, who had carried out the Genocide, and openly declared their intention to complete it.
Public services in Rwanda no longer existed, the economy was destroyed, and the treasury had been looted. Yet the new government was still expected to repay the huge external debts that had been used to finance the carnage.
We were starting from less than zero. To most observers, Rwanda seemed unlikely to even survive as a nation, much less recover, reconcile, and prosper.
Our first tasks were to restore security, address the humanitarian catastrophe, and form a Government of National Unity made up of all surviving political forces that had not aligned with the Genocide.
A thorough and honest reckoning with the darkest corners of our past was equally urgent, if we were not to repeat it. We also needed a shared narrative about the future.
Consensus could not be imposed from above, much less parachuted in from outside. People from all walks of life began to meet, officially and unofficially, to identify concrete solutions rooted as much as possible in our own culture and traditions.
These consultations eventually reached every village in the country and culminated in the 2003 constitution, which was drafted essentially by citizens, not by experts.
As a result, almost any Rwandan can tell you where the country is headed and why.
Let me tell you about two specific examples before coming back to this Symposium’s central question.
First, how we handled justice and reconciliation. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were directly involved in the killings. By 1997, the refugees had been brought home from exile. The prison population swelled. No justice system in the world, could have coped with more than one million simultaneous murder trials. We had to try something radically new.
But punishment could not be our only objective. People needed to know what exactly had happened to loved ones. Survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders would have to live and work together again, side by side, for the rest of their lives. Revealing the truth and strengthening national unity were therefore equally important.
The mechanism we devised, Gacaca, was rooted in a traditional practice of public dispute resolution that every Rwandan could relate to.
For ten years, every community in Rwanda came together once a week. Justice was rendered by those most concerned, the communities themselves, arbitrated by local leaders elected for fairness and honesty.
Around a quarter of cases resulted in acquittal. Offenders who told the full truth and expressed sincere remorse were often sentenced to time served.
The Gacaca jurisdictions dealt with around two million cases, at a total cost of $50 million. Tens of millions of handwritten pages from these proceedings have been preserved for future generations.
By way of comparison, the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda spent close to $1.5 billion over 20 years to convict 65 people.
The second example is our effort to build a stable and democratic constitutional order.
The Genocide was a political project of the state, perversely justified in terms of “majority rule”, but in reality based on a crude racial ideology with roots in the colonial period.
We could never again allow the democratic process to be hijacked by political entrepreneurs bent on gaining total power by pitting one Rwandan against another.
Our approach to governance reflects the utter seriousness of that endeavour.
One, power must be shared. No party, however strong, can make up more than 50 per cent of Cabinet. The president of the republic and the speaker of parliament must represent different parties. Decisions have to be reached through dialogue and consensus.
Two, the fight against genocide ideology and divisionism is a public duty. No party may seek support by appealing to region, ethnicity, religion, or any other arbitrary social distinction. Politics has to be inclusive and national in scope.
Three, communities are best placed to know their own priorities and hold government accountable for results. Service delivery has been decentralised. There are many occasions throughout the year where citizens speak directly to leaders about what is not working, and what is. And believe me, Rwandans do not hold back when they have complaints.
Our experience has taught us that confrontation, anger, and division are not at all the essence of democracy. That style of politics may be a fun game in certain countries, but in others it is a matter of life or death.
In Rwanda, public opinion will not stand for it. Yet we are constantly being told that there is something wrong with us for putting national unity at the heart of our system of governance.
Let me try to present the example of Switzerland, which is a useful point of comparison in this regard. This country’s principles of concordance, collegiality, and direct democracy have resulted in more than 150 years of stability, prosperity, and unity. The consensual approach obviously has something to recommend it.
This leads us back to the central questions raised in this Symposium.
Let me start with a plain truth: There are small countries, but there are no small peoples.
It follows that thinking big, and acting big, are choices available to all of us.
Size is not destiny. But I can think of two ways in which Rwanda’s relative smallness works to our advantage.
First, it makes it easier for us to innovate. There are no off-the-shelf remedies for our predicament. We have no choice but to experiment with new ideas and bring the ones that work to scale as quickly as possible.
It is no accident that many of the biggest and most innovative companies in the world today began as small start-ups in someone’s garage. Without the constraints of bureaucracy and precedent, original thinking can flourish.
In a way, Rwanda is like a collection of start-up governance institutions whose mission is to solve problems and create new opportunities. If we were bigger, our approach maybe would have been more conventional and less effective.
Second, when you are small, it is a lot easier to get everyone involved. In our culture, as in most others, there is no substitute for talking face-to-face.
Personal interactions remain an essential method for rebuilding trust in society, and changing mindsets, such that ambitious visions actually get translated into the billions of choices that citizens collectively make, each and every day, about their health, finances, and security.
So yes, there are benefits to being small. But there is a big catch too: It means you are also small enough to fail.
A mistake that a larger entity could absorb can completely wipe out your company or erase all your country’s development gains, or even plunge you into war.
Small places have much less room for error. No one will rush to bail you out. In the grand scheme, the fate of a small place only really matters to the people who live in it. We have to be responsible for ourselves.
No amount of success will ever fully dilute this risk. Iceland, for example, if I may dare to give one, is as advanced a country as any, but its prosperity was nearly destroyed during the financial crisis.
These are the realities I have in mind whenever I remind Rwandans that “nobody owes us anything”, and that we can never afford to take our progress for granted. We must always strive to become better and better versions of ourselves.
Greatness is a choice available to any person, organisation, or nation. Big countries are capable of thinking small and acting small. Small countries can think big and act big, which is to say: With dignity and respect for others.
In Rwanda, we found answers appropriate to our context, but the principles we used to arrive at them apply more generally: Include everyone, build consensus, take responsibility, and be accountable for results.
If Rwanda can transcend its tragic history, then anyone can. No matter how intractable today’s global challenges may seem, we should meet them with confidence and optimism.
More than ever, we are all in the fight together. Globalisation means that opportunities spread faster and farther. But threats move just as aggressively, whether we are talking of pandemics, terrorist ideologies, transnational crime, or stock market panics.
Big or small, we inhabit the same small world, and so we have to make the right choices, for the right reasons, for ourselves and for each other.