Two years ago, I spent a semester studying in Uganda, two weeks of which were dedicated to studying grassroots development. We were exposed to several approaches- community-based advocacy, collective savings and loans arrangements, and grassroots skills and capacity building. With the exception of our visit to an AIDS advocacy group that had rendered a visit (and then funding) from Prince Charles at one point, most of these efforts revolved around internal resource pooling, rather than resource extraction through the political system.
While experiencing all of this, I was continuously trying to see how the Alinksy model of relational power building could apply in an LDC. For the unacquainted, Alinksy posited that there are two types of power- organized people and organized money. The only way for citizens to achieve results in the political space is to organize themselves around issues in their self-interest and demand accountability from their elected officials. At the time, my perception of this approach’s applicability in a less-developed context was blurred by the idea that in a poor country, there aren’t many resources to be extracted. If budgets are being supported by donors, then what crumbs are left over for collective action?
I hadn’t thought about this issue much since I left Uganda. However, this weekend, I was fortunate to encounter a pastor and community organizer from Rwanda at a social justice retreat at my church. John Rutsindintwarane, now secretary general of the Lutheran Church of Rwanda, spoke about his experiences applying the Alinksy model in his local parish. He learned the model after a chance encounter led him to a training led by PICO, an organization of faith-based community organizations on the West Coast. He took on the work of holding relational meetings with villagers in Mumeya, in Rwanda’s Eastern province. 22 villagers of all ages and genders were elected as an organizing committee, and within 4 months, had conducted 2,000 hours of one-on-one meetings.
They learned that the most pressing issue was the lack of a health center, and decided to build a health clinic. They began the construction themselves, but to complete the project they secured meetings with political figures, starting with the mayor, and slowly worked their way up the political food chain, eventually meeting with the Minister of Health. The relational nature of the organization provided the power to hold accountable politicians who might otherwise take advantage of diffuse interests and lack of information. The health clinic was built with the help of funding from the government, improving the lives of 17,000 local citizens, and now Fr. John is working with priests in a number of other parishes to train them in community organizing. Their organization is called Congregations Rebuilding Community in Rwanda.
My posts on this blog tend to operate at a much more abstract level, so forgive me for zooming out for a second- there is a broader economic lesson to be learned. While it’s unclear how scalable this approach is in an LDC, it is clear that there are resources to be had. For the last decade, the World Bank in particular has turned its focus to governance issues, which are most often relevant for a simple reason- weak institutions lead to wasted resources. A number of academic economists now pay lip service to the importance of strengthening civil society organizations to improve accountability. However, I’ve never seen this type of community organizing advocated. Maybe they don’t realize it, but when economists talk about institutions and civil society, it’s this type of community organizing that they’re ultimately calling for. Whether we’re talking about Rwanda, Washington DC, London, or even the US at large, there are resources to be had. There are also powerful forces and hidden incentives marshalling those resources to various interests. The best way for ordinary citizens to get their share is to create their own power by organizing. I now believe this is true in any context, and I’m grateful for having met Fr. John to learn from his experiences.
For more information about CRCR, visit their page on PICO’s website.