Rwanda’s Reforms Boost Progress on School Enrolment

7 May 2010, Kigali, Rwanda — When the Rwandan Government drafted the first status report on the Millennium Development Goals in 2003, the main focus was economic stabilisation. Poverty and maternal mortality targets were completely off track.

Seven years later, it has recorded impressive results in the 2010 national MDG report, especially with women’s empowerment and universal primary education well on the way of meeting the targets.

“The government implemented courageous reforms to increase enrolment in primary schools”, said Christian Shingiro of UNDP in Kigali.
The education reform abolished school fees in 2003. In 2005, the government in Kigali began transferring resources directly to schools in different districts on the basis of number of students. Rwanda’s high level of parental participation in Parent-Teacher Associations enabled households to have a voice in how school capitation grants (a form of conditional cash transfer) were utilised. Classroom construction was scaled up, and double-shift classes were mandated in order to ease overcrowding.

This helped primary school enrolment to grow at an average annual rate of six per cent since 2000. National statistics show that the rate is currently at 92 per cent, with higher enrolment rates for girls (they also perform better than boys). The expansion has resulted in greater access to primary education for the poor.

For Rwanda, a landlocked country of few natural resources and a rapidly growing population — and perpetually vulnerable to external shocks — the strides towards the Millennium Development Goals have been a matter of national commitment. Coming out of the conflicts of the 1990s that dramatically reversed the country’s development indicators, the Rwandan Government, armed with a fierce sense of urgency and ownership, was more than willing to meet the challenges.

UNDP has supported this effort at different levels. It has provided technical and financial assistance to draft MDG reports as well as national poverty reduction strategies, which put forward school reforms. Both sets of reports constitute the central part of the government’s long-term and more ambitious “Vision 2020”, which goes beyond the 2015 MDG deadline.

UNDP has also helped to tailor the MDGs to the local context and track progress. It has given policy advice and brought together donors, civil society and the private sector to work towards a common objective. In fact, the national poverty reduction strategies are results of an inclusive and participatory effort by all development partners in the country.

Shingiro believes the most important aspect of UNDP’s support is neutrality. With no political agenda of its own, UNDP has been a trusted partner to the Rwandan Government since the early 1970s to give support when and where it is needed.

“There are many agencies that can give much more financial assistance than UNDP ever could”, he said, “but how many of them could put forward MDG-friendly policy advice and help build capacity like UNDP can”?

As for the expansion of access to primary education, schools are now trying to absorb the “access shock” and increase the quality of education through improvements to textbooks and teacher training. Last year, the government introduced a mandatory nine-year cycle of basic education to counter dropout rates that remain problematic.

The long-term challenge for Rwanda, development experts agree, is financing. As one of the pilot countries of the Gleaneagles Scenario Initiative, in which most African states showed they were capable of absorbing scaled-up resources for MDG-consistent programmes, Rwanda has come to rely on aid as a major source of finance.

To wean from that dependence, Shingiro said, especially in the current global recession that has brought a sharp decline in export demands, tourism and overseas remittance, would once again require “going all the way”.

Story by Katrin Park for the United Nations Development Programme.