Austin Harris, KF11 Rwanda

Economic growth is a focus and concern of most countries.  In developing countries the economic growth potential is often large and its effects can greatly benefit many in need.  One approach to achieving this goal is to increase the labor force or the output from labor.  Microfinance has been a significant contributor to this growth.  Among its benefits, microfinance loans have enabled more people to work.  Many of the poor have difficulties finding employment, and the capital provided by microfinance loans enables them to conduct business.  Also, largely lending to women, who otherwise may not be a part of the labor force, microfinance institutes can increase the number of participants in the labor force.

Another way of achieving a greater labor force or increasing the output of labor is to have mandatory community service for the people of a country.  In Rwanda, there is a mandatory community service day from 7:00am to noon on the last Saturday of each month.  The day is called Umuganda, meaning “contribution”.  The start of this practice predates colonial times and is still practiced today.  All able bodied persons over the age of 18 are expected to participate in volunteer community work.  Participation in Umuganda is usually supervised by a manager, or Umudugudu, who oversees a group of households (usually between 50 and 150).  Not participating in Umuganda without authorization can lead to a fine or arrest.

On this day, business activity halts, no public transportation operates, and people are seen everywhere working.  Most commonly people participate by cleaning streets, cutting grass and trimming bushes along roads, or repairing public buildings.  People with skills may offer their services for free on this day.  For example, doctors may offer free medical service and teachers may offer free classes.  Similar to microfinance, Umuganda helps to further economic development and makes the country less dependent on donor contributions.

The benefits of Umuganda are not merely economic.  The day is intended to build community involvement and strengthen connections between people.  Also, since everyone is expected to work, it gives people a chance to come in contact with all members of the community.  One benefit of this is that people can access authorities and inquire or voice opinion about various issues.

I was able to participate in Umuganda by helping to create the foundation for a secondary school in the Kamonyi District in the Southern Province.  The day entailed digging a trench where the foundation would be poured and leveling the entire area.  Hundreds of locals were present to contribute their labor.  In addition, many political figures, including ambassadors, government officials, and the mayor, were present to work as well.  This allowed for interaction between people otherwise may not come in contact with each other.  After many sweaty, dirty hours, the foundation was dug and leveled and the first part of concrete was laid.  This schoolroom will be completed by a combination of local workers and contributions from future Umugandas.

Next to the foundation we were digging is the product of previous Umugandas and the work of local workers.  A secondary school schoolroom had been built three years prior that has been providing a learning center for many of the local students.  If dependent solely on local workers, the construction of this schoolroom may not have been feasible.  In a country where heavy machinery is not readily available or too expensive for rural areas, a high degree of physical labor is required.  Through labor contributions of Umuganda this schoolroom was both affordable to build and completed at a much faster rate.

The fairness of Umuganda is debatable.  People are required to perform unpaid labor, regardless of how much they work during the week.  On the other hand, many constructions, repairs, and upkeep that benefit locals were made possible by the labor contributed from Umuganda.  If the government had to pay for workers to complete these jobs, funds from other government supported programs may be taken.  By reaping the rewards of the volunteer labor and by having more capital to invest in the country, Umuganda has contributed to the growth and development of the country.

There are many methods to improve the lives of those in the developing world.  Microfinance is one effective channel.  Mandatory community service, like Umuganda, is another.  It is helpful to recognize the many ways a country can assist the poor and achieve economic development.  It is also helpful to assess how effective and fair each of these practices is.  There are likely many other useful means to achieve these goals that are currently practiced and many that are yet to be developed.

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