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Debating public policy in Rwanda

What young Rwandans care about
Unemployment is the biggest challenge facing Rwanda today
iDebate Rwanda exists to empower young people to be effective advocates for themselves and their communities. So when my team of trainers were invited to teach 150 of their brightest minds how to debate, we made sure that all of our classes were centred around issues our students cared about and considered to be of national importance. Below are a few of the key conclusions from our group discussions.
Unemployment is the biggest challenge facing Rwanda today
Across the board, unemployment was identified as the biggest issue amongst students. In particular, students were concerned that young people in Rwanda lacked the skills and expertise to compete with foreign workers for the skilled high-paying jobs. This marked a change from last year's students who considered over-population to be the most pressing issue facing the country. However, they remained supportive of the Government's 2020 vision and over the course of the camp produced some highly innovative policy proposals on how to create more job opportunities for young Rwandans. 
Making public policy means making difficult choices
One of the things that most impressed each of the trainers at this year's debate camp was the maturity of our students' approach to public policy. Far from expecting the government to simply magic up a solution to each of the problems they listed (something we are all too used to seeing in our own country), they displayed an incredible knowledge of the policy making process and a deep appreciation of the need to balance the competing interests of key stakeholders when making decisions. This made our interactive public policy workshops, in which we divided the students into different interest groups and tasked them with lobbying the government team, all the more productive.
No issue can be addressed in isolation
The main challenge faced by the trainers in their respective classes was the tendency of students to jump straight into defending their solution to a given social problem before thinking it through, somewhat polarising the debate as a result. Once they began taking the time to consider the causes of the problems they were trying to address, they quickly noticed how interconnected they were. A tax on families who have more than three children, for example, was presented by one group as a tidy solution to over-population until it was pointed out that it would disproportionately afflict the poorest members of society, thereby undermining the government's poverty reduction policies. This led the class to begin considering more holistic solutions such as education reform as a means of addressing multiple complex social issues.
Solving unemployment in less than a day.
This was the product of three hours' work.
The second day of the training programme was devoted to role playing a policy debate on how to address unemployment in Rwanda. My class of twenty students were divided into five groups of four. One team was tasked with representing the government while the other four were assigned the role of key stakeholders including: farmers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and local employers.
After initially proposing a cap on immigration, the government team was challenged to explain how they would reassure employers that local workers had the necessary skills to fill the void. Similarly, they were made to reconsider their plan to encourage more Rwandans to set up their own businesses when the entrepreneurs team challenged them to explain why families dependent on subsistence farming for both their income and food supply would take the risk of starting a knowledge economy business that may cost them their entire livelihoods if it failed.
After reviewing the proposed amendments from each interest group, this is what they came up with:
  • Phasing in immigration reform to give businesses time to adapt and train new staff, and replacing an outright cap with stricter criteria that would only allow in foreign workers for the purpose of training the Rwandan workforce.
  • An internship scheme for young Rwandans (who make up the majority of the population) to gain experience of working for their prospective employers and education reform to embed the skills required for a successful knowledge economy.
  • Professionalising the agriculture industry and forming a co-operative where farmers are encouraged to grow cash crops for sale on the open market in return for business insurance and social security plans.
  • Underwriting small business loans to encourage prospective entrepreneurs to finance their ventures by selling their farming land to the cash crop co-operative. 
This was the product of three hours' work.
Debate topics
This House Would introduce performance related pay for Rwandan teachers - motion for the Debate Camp 2014 Grand Final.
The theme of this year's debate camp was education, naturally an issue close to the heart of the iDebate staff and students who have witnessed first hand the way in which debating has transformed thousands of young people into passionate and engaged learners. The opening and final motions of the annual competition therefore focused on education reform with the controversial topic of performance related pay for teachers chosen for the Grand Final.
However, in line with the camp's aim of broadening horizons, the competition took in a wide range of topics designed to test debater's knowledge and understanding of all aspects of government policy. Below are some of the most interesting debates we heard.
China: friend or foe?
The recent surge in Chinese investment in the economies of east Africa made this issue a particularly hot potato. We did see the occasional deployment of cultural stereotypes and wanton factual inaccuracies, but there were more than a few nuanced thought provoking arguments too, including:
  • The East African Community has become too dependent on Chinese investment in infrastructure and technology, which is causing unemployment to rise. East African governments should focus on subsidising home-grown industries to boost exports.
  • East African industry cannot survive without Chinese investment in vital infrastructure such as roads, hospitals, and telecommunications networks, while local labour forces do not yet have the skills and expertise to take their place.
Is the International Criminal Court (ICC) biased against African countries?
The prosecution of African leaders for crimes against their own people is a particularly sensitive issue in Rwanda owing to the inaction of the international community during the 1994 genocide. We tasked our students with debating this issue for the semi-final of the competition and here are a few of the arguments they produced:
  • The fact that the majority of leaders indicted by the ICC are African, combined with the absence of western leaders responsible for the deaths of millions of civilians in the Middle East, proves that the court is biased.
  • The majority of cases involving African leaders have been self-referred by the countries in question themselves proving that the ICC has the legitimacy to prosecute their leaders and in turn deliver justice to their victims.
Is the East African Common Market a realistic ambition?
Integration with its East African neighbours is the cornerstone of the Rwanda government's development plan, known as Vision 2020. In a debate contested by teams from both Rwanda and Kenya, we posed the question of whether the goal of deeper economic integration within the East African Community is truly achievable.
  • A common market in East Africa is unworkable without tax harmonisation and currency union, which would lead to some member states developing faster than others and at their expense.
  • The common market will create new employment opportunities as workers will have the freedom to go where their skills are needed most. This will in turn boost government tax revenues and facilitate the growth of industry on which each member's continuing economic development depends.
And on performance related pay for teachers?
iDebate regularly challenges its students to propose the bold education reforms that they feel would best equip them to lead their generation in realising the government's vision of turning Rwanda into a prosperous knowledge economy. Improving the quality of teacher training was one of the most popular reforms of the many proposed, so we felt this would be a fitting motion for the Grand Final.
Take a look at the some of the arguments made by our speakers and see if you can work out to which side we (the judges) awarded victory in the end.
In favour of performance related pay:
  • Reform would apply to primary school teachers across the state education system in Rwanda and pay would be increased for teachers based on the performance of their students in school exams.
  • The objective of the policy is for the test scores of pupils in public primary schools to match those of their private school counterparts.
  • Rwandan teachers are presently not paid enough for what they do and this is deterring good teachers from joining and staying in the profession.
  • What makes a teacher exceptional is the quality of the relationship they build with their pupils and the enthusiasm for learning they instil in them. The more teachers are paid, the more likely they are to go the extra mile for their pupils.
Against performance related pay:
  • It is not clear why this policy is necessary - there have been no campaigns for higher pay by teachers and no protests against what they are paid at the moment.
  • This policy will discriminate against teachers of pupils with learning difficulties or challenging backgrounds who are less likely to score highly on academic tests.
  • If the assessment of teachers' pay is based on the outcome of exams that they themselves set for their students, there will be a greater risk of corruption.
  • If low pay is the problem and better results can be delivered simply by paying more, then surely the solution is to award pay increases to all teachers.
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