Sustainable Development in Rwanda


by: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr. 20140926

Sustainable development (SD) is most simply a process of development occurring within the world’s system that is sustainable. The concept of SD was defined in Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) as “a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with future as well as present needs” (1987). Another more commonly cited definition from the same source purports that development is sustainable when it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations” (WCED 1987).

The International Institute for Sustainable Development presents “needs” and “limitations” as the two overarching concepts within this definition (2014). That is, the needs of  the world’s poor should be given special priority and technology and social organization should not prevent the environment from meeting present and future needs, and therefore, limits should be imposed. The IISD further posits that all definitions of SD requires a view of the world as a system that connects space and time (2014). The space element speaks to how air pollution in one part of the world can affect others. The time element speaks to how ancestrial land farming affect people today and the agricultural and economic policies of today will affect future generations. Further, the quality of life can be viewed as a system also as physical health without access to education or religious freedom without the ability to provide for children remains inadequate (IISD, 2014). Nevertheless, as Zafarullah and Huque stated, “Globalization has reconfigured social relations, increased social disparities, caused social instability, produced greater social and economic inequality, threatened traditional cultures, and disrupted ecological equilibrium” (2012).

To ask if sustainable development is a fair standard for developing states would be kindred to considering if developing states should retain the right to prevent human development. The answer to such philosophical interrogation would be an emphatic no. In Shifting Paradigms for Sustainable Development: Implications for Management Theory and Research, authors Gladwin, Kennelly, and Krause coordinated a definitional consensus that presented SD as “a process of achieving human development in an inclusive, connected, equitable, prudent, and secure manner” (1995, 878).

The inclusiveness of SD embraces both social and environmental systems while considering their local and international implications both now and in the future. The connectivity of SD embraces the interconnectedness and interdependencies of social welfare and environmental respect and recognizes that disregard for either has mutually debilitating effects. The equity of SD embraces the fair distribution of resources and property rights (intergenerational and intragenerational) and could include providing for the disadvantaged and avoiding exploitation without due compensation. The prudence of SD embraces humble and precautionary constraints against excessive, irresponsible, and irreversible activity. The security of SD embraces the protection of economic, social, and ecological health, critical natural capital, self-renewability and self-sustainability, carrying capacity, and the full realization of human rights and fulfillment of basic human needs (Gladwin, Kennelly, and Krause 1995, 878-880). All countries, developed and developing alike, have the capacity to embrace such a process regardless of the disadvantages they may face. All that is required is political will. The disadvantages faced by developing states, however, do imply a need to demand flexibility when selecting SD indicators.

Gross domestic product (GDP) is no longer seen as an effective way to measure development as it ignores ecological and social progress because of a lack of direct monetary impact (IISD 2014). Additionally, as the IISD reported, “Conventional ways of measuring a nation’s progress, such as gross domestic product, can perversely attribute positive values to activities which, under any definition of sustainability, are undesirable” (2014). That is not to say that if economists are able to adjust the GDP measure to reflect socio-economic and environmental factors that the model would not prove more helpful. Currently, there are various other ways for measuring SD, but not a single one of them can substantiate superior efficiency.

According to Industry Canada, “there is no one particular set of sustainable development indicators endorsed by all experts and practitioners” (1997, 81). Nevertheless, because SD contains holistic values, any effective attempt to measure SD must reflect an integrated-systems approach. That is, several elements should be assessed for positive and negative consequences such as issues concerning equity and disparity (within the current population and between current and future generations), ecological life-support, and economic and non-market developments that influence human well-being (Industry Canada 1997). Measurement should cover a time horizon that includes human and ecosystem time scales and allows for short-term and future generation decision making. It should include local and international impacts on all systems and consider historic and current conditions to implicate future trajectories. Although, the selected criteria can vary based on value preferences or goal commitments, the measurement should capture progress or the lack of toward SD.


Hereafter, impediments to social, economic, and political development in Rwanda are examined in the reversed-context of the parameters outlined by Gladwin, Kennelly, and Krause (1995). That is, the lack of inclusiveness, connectivity, equity, prudence, and security will serve to uncloak barriers to Rwandan development. Furthermore, the 1994 genocide in and of itself, undoubtedly, acted as a primary driver of backward progress, and thus, will be used as a principle indicator of past and present impediments to development.

Beforehand, the Hutu dominated government cultivated a lack of inclusiveness by ignoring the need to ensure social and environmental harmony and the global implications the genocide would foster into the future. As noted by Worldwatch Institute, the genocide produced “the most massive population move in history” where approximately 700,000 refugees fled to Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo decimating “35 square kilometers of forests for firewood and shelter” and clearing paths for travel (2014). These refugees have fostered socioeconomic and political impediments measured by the loss or suspended assistance from donors because of the current regimes recent support of the M23 (Human Rights Watch 2014). Further, an estimated 15000 ha of forest plantations in Rwanda were destroyed which were later needed to resettle refugees, clearly impeding social development (Bizoza 2014).

The government did not embrace the interconnectivity and interrelatedness of social welfare and environmental respect and thus ignored the impact environmental degradation would have on social welfare. Social welfare is heavily impacted by the environment, especially in developing states, because the economy develops and majority of households earn a living predominately through agriculture (Bizoza 2014, 17). Therefore, income levels, health, food, and general welfare are directly connected to the environment.

The government embraced an ideology that was not equitable (divided the Hutus from the Tutsis and Twas) and refused a fair distribution of resources and property rights. Further, the powerful elites ignored the disadvantaged and did not refrain from excessive exploitation. The same temptations toward ethnic strife faced by the Hutus while in power will be a factor to resist by the current Tutsi dominated government. National unification must be realized and inequitable distribution of resources must be averted. Economic development will demand rising income levels and the skill capacity to switch from an agricultural economy to a knowledge-based one will demand improvements in health and education. Despite progress in poverty reduction, the current government has failed to address the needs of the entire population as a great concentration of poverty still exists in the South and West (African Development Bank Group 2012). Despite Rwanda now having the world record for the largest percentage of women in parliament, the HIV prevalence rate has remained relatively stable disproportionately affecting women (United Nations Development Programme 2014). This discriminative tragedy echoes the 250,000 to 500,000 women and children raped during the genocide (Amnesty International 2004). Not only were the Tutsis and Twas marginalized, women have long been disadvantaged (Levine 2006).

The government did not act prudently as it went about engaging in excessive, irresponsible, and irreversible activity. The attempt to “destroy the entire Tutsi civilian population” was excessive to say the least (United Human Rights Council 2014). The slaughtering of innocent men, women, and children, and the toll imposed on the environment, proved irresponsible. Further, although populations can reproduce, an actual life lost can never be reversed. Families were impacted and wealth was destroyed that will affect generations to come. Again, excessive butchering of lives and forests culminated to hinder social development.

Security is the canal down which development travels. Yet, the Hutu government undermined the security of over half of a million of its citizens during the genocide. Political instability is antithetical to security. Yet, the current Tutsi dominated government has aggressively suppressed opposition parties, civil society organizations, and independent media (HRW 2014).  When human rights violations such as freedom of speech and expression are not honored it fosters a climate ridden of insecurities. As The United Nations Development Programme asserted, “it will not be possible for the community of nations to achieve any of its goals-not peace, not environmental protection, not human rights or democratization, not fertility reduction, not social integration-except in the context of sustainable development that leads to human security” (1994).

In Rwanda, ethnic hatred translated into a sheer lack of responsibility toward development. It was vainly attempted for some at the expense of others. The current government now faces a familiar temptation – to oppress the previous oppressors. Rwanda’s progress toward the MDGs is evidentiary.  However, as Zafarullah and Huque stated, “reaching the MDGs is only one milestone, for there still is much work to do in fostering inclusive growth, reducing inequality and poverty, and improving health and education outcomes in even the most successful countries” (2012). Achieving SD in Rwanda will take an ingenious effort. Likewise, attempts at measuring progress toward development goals will require the same. Finally, it is important to note, the GDP metric took decades to work out many of the knots within its system and with time many of the current SD models may prove revolutionary. Despite what changes may come, SD should be measured in such a way as to allow for the formulation of better standards, evaluation of results of actions and impact on objectives, provide choices, corrections, comparisons, and reflection on constraints (Industry Canada 1997).


African Development Bank Group. Development Effectiveness Review 2012. Country Review, African Development Bank Group, 2012.

Amnesty International. “Rwanda: “Marked for Death”, rape survivors living with HIV/AIDS in Rwanda.” Amnesty International. April 05, 2004.

Gladwin, Thomas N., James J. Kennelly, and Tara-Shelomith Krause. 1995. “Shifting Paradigms for Sustainable Development: Implications for Management Theory and Research.” Academy Of Management Review 20, no. 4: 874-907. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 23, 2014).

Bizoza, Alfred. National Report for Rwanda. United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, 2012, 1-32. (accessed September 3, 2014).

Human Rights Watch . Rwanda. 2014. (accessed September 26, 2014).

Industry Canada. Measuring Sustainable Development: Review of Current Practice. Industry Canada, 1997.

International Institute for Sustainable Development . What is Sustainable Development? September 24, 2014.

Levine, Ruth. “Educating Girls, Unlocking Development .” Current History, 2006: 127-131. (accessed September 16, 2014).United Human Rights Council. Genocide in Rwanda. 2014.

United Human Rights Council. Genocide in Rwanda. 2014.

United Nations Development Programme. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diesases. 2014. (accessed September 26, 2014).

United Nations Development Programme. 1994. Human development report 1994. New York: Author.

World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. (accessed September 23, 2014).

Worldwatch Institute. Modern Warfare Causes Unprecedented Environmental Damage. 2014. (accessed September 26, 2014).

Zafarullah, Habib, and Ahmed Shafiqul Huque. Managing Development in a Globalized World: Concepts, Processes, Institutions. Auerbach Publications. 2012.  (accessed September 26, 2014).


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