Why you should care

Because it’s more capitalistic than you think. Really. 

Twelve times a year, the president of the country chooses a project — picking up trash, painting houses, caring for the elderly — and then, on the last Saturday of the month, remarkably, every able-bodied citizen pitches in. This is not just goodwill; this is compulsion. Fines and ostracism await those who do not participate.

And it works.

The president is Paul Kagame, of Rwanda, known for his heavy hand — and for ending genocide and steering his country onto a more prosperous course. He is controversial: Most either revere him or loathe him. But you can’t argue with the success of mandatory community service, or umuganda, as it’s known in Kinyarwanda. There is literally no trash in the streets of the capital, Kigali, and the Rwandan government credits umuganda with creating some US$60 million in impact since 2007, in hefty projects like hydroelectric plants and building clinics. Which, of course, leads to our plea to mayors from Seattle to Miami: Let’s install our own version of umuganda — and yes, make it compulsory.

We hear you already, you lazy bums: Coercion by the state! Forced labor! Well, not quite: Rwanda is obsessed with self-reliance and weaning itself off the foreign aid that constitutes 30 to 40 percent of its government’s budget. Home-grown solutions, like umuganda, have gotten them pretty far: The poverty rate dropped by 14 percent in a decade and child deaths decreased by two-thirds, among other things. When you think about umuganda as self-reliance, it sounds much more like the American dream than a Soviet gulag.

Even still, some are cynical about how Americans would react to such a plan …

Look, maybe the projects wouldn’t look exactly the same in the U.S., but we still have our own urban and rural corners of poverty. Plus, we all know U.S. transportation budgets aren’t exactly brimming with cash. A little umuganda could help fill the holes in slashed budgets and put road repairs in the hands of the people. Anyway, as this tweet notes, many cities could use a cleanup.

To be sure, Kagame’s version of umuganda is not perfect. The richest can treat the fines like a penalty if they want to pay hooky, but the poorest of the poor could really use that extra day a month to earn wages. Rwanda scholar Susan Thomson, of Colgate University, argues that for some communities, umuganda is “very oppressive” and “almost a form of indentured servitude.” Would umuganda (and its opt-out) work in the U.S., where inequality is a national scourge?

And yet, there’s little doubt that umuganda helps promote unity and a sense of community — needed in a post-genocide country, even if it has been more than two decades. Umuganda, a tradition that predates Kagame’s regime, gives people:

Given the divisive nature of American politics, racial tensions and the rise in xenophobia, the U.S. could use a little more get-to-know-your-neighbor kumbaya. Forcing neighbors to paint a fence or pick up trash together might sound like something for people in orange jumpsuits or elementary students, but it may be just what we need.

How do you think this would go over in your community? Let us know in the comments.

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