RWANDA: IRIN Focus on Villagisation [19991013]

RWANDA: IRIN Focus on Villagisation [19991013]

RWANDA: IRIN Focus on villagisation

KIGALI, 13 October (IRIN) - The Rwandan government is moving ahead with its controversial villagisation effort throughout the country as international agencies grapple with what role they should play in a programme that is expected to have far-reaching implications on Rwandan society, aid officials said.

"The policy is clear. In rural areas, every Rwandan is to move into a village for the purpose of proper land utilisation and the provision of basic services," said Patricia Hajabakiga, secretary-general in the ministry of lands, human resettlement and environmental protection (MINITERE), responsible for coordinating the villagisation initiative known locally as 'imidugudu'. "It's the only alternative we have," she said.

The programme aims to develop diverse commercial activities and employment opportunities outside the agricultural sector, on which the vast majority of people currently depend. "We cannot continue to pretend that every Rwandan will be able to live off the land, because of its difficult hilly terrain," Hajabakiga said. "We need to create other jobs but there's no way of doing that when people are scattered."

But many donors remain sceptical about the programme, citing reports of "coerced" relocations, disappointing experiences of villagisation in other countries, and a lack of population participation in the process. "It's very much a top-down approach," a diplomatic source told IRIN. "The government is convinced it's good in the long-run but it can't be successful if you don't have the people with you."

Critics also say that the government does not have the funds necessary to establish basic social services in the new villages and that many are located too far from farm land.

A 1997 ministerial-level decree stated that all new houses in rural areas were to be constructed only in imidugudu, but the policy has not been ratified in parliament and its legal status remains unclear, observers say. The 1993 Arusha peace accords on Rwanda had also introduced the concept of villagisation for the returning refugees who had been living in exile for many years.

Government estimates indicate over 91,000 houses have been constructed in planned settlements since 1995, with population per settlement site ranging from 25 to 300 families. Currently, about 94 percent of the population of Kibungu prefecture, 60 percent of Umutara, 40 percent of Kigali Rural, and smaller numbers in other areas are living in imidugudu sites, Hajabakiga said.

About 620,000 people displaced due to insecurity in northwest Rwanda in 1997-98 have also been resettled in 351 imidugudu sites as of October, humanitarian sources said. The northwest resettlement has fuelled much of the current concern about the policy among aid agencies and donors.

Meanwhile, in many regions of the country, populations had little or no choice to regroup, with fines imposed on non-participants, according to a recent study on villagisation in Rwanda, published by Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Some critics suggested that the government policy had "hidden aims", and its "compulsory nature" could contribute to "long term social tension," the study concluded.

Hajabakiga denied that people were being moved involuntarily. "You will always have some resistance to any reform programme all over the world. But I would not say people are being forced to move," she said, adding that it had "become more of a political rather than a technical issue for the international community."

Confronted with the return of about four million people over a three-year period, the programme now aims to improve social and economic infrastructure in the existing imidugudu and to resettle another 370,000 families in "acute need" of shelter in 600-800 new villages in all Rwandan prefectures, according to a government position paper released in July.

While international agencies have supported planned settlement efforts in Rwanda on humanitarian grounds since the 1994 genocide, it is uncertain how much more assistance donors are willing to provide towards villagisation now that it has become less of an emergency issue, aid officials told IRIN.

UNHCR, which has been a major supporter of rural housing projects in Rwanda, said in its 1999 appeal that it was planning to phase out its reintegration activities in the country by the end of the year. The UN country team "has been holding a number of inter-agency meetings on resettlement with a view to reflect on what its role should be," a UN official told IRIN last week. An OCHA-Kigali report on the northwest said in May that the international community had requested "assurances" on the government's villagisation policy, including its intent and on the passing of land tenure laws.

Meanwhile, conditions in many existing imidugudu sites remain dismal. An April-July survey, conducted by the NGO Rwanda Initiative for Sustainable Development (RISD) in four prefectures, found wide disparities in the way the policy had been implemented. It found that shelter "took precedence over anything else", with little attention paid to the provision of running water, schools, health centres and other social infrastructure, an RISD report said.

Many imidugudu are "inhabited almost entirely by poor and vulnerable people", leading some NGOs to fear that the villages "may become places where the old and sickly simply go to die," the report said. "We think villagisation won't be reversed, but we think it can be better planned. There is a lot to be gained if we invest in the sustainability of these villages," RISD Programme Coordinator John Muyenzi told IRIN.

Hajabakiga said many vulnerable people were residing in imidugudu because they were the priority groups first targeted for assistance during the crisis period. Attempts were now underway to adjust the composition of the existing imidugudu to ensure a "mix" of families and ethnic groups, which would also contribute to national reconciliation, she added.

The government's position paper noted that "immense" resources were needed to make the programme work. "Due to the financial constraints the government will seek substantial support from the international community, in order to successfully conduct the resettlement programme," it said.


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Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D

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