Until a few years ago, the national budget process in Rwanda was shrouded in secrecy. The budget was never made public. There were no hearings. And people didn't know exactly how the nation's resources were being spent.
The details of the budget might still be hidden if it were not for the courage and conviction of one man—Alexis Nkurunziza.
Working with CLADHO, an umbrella of human rights organizations in Rwanda, Nkurunziza conducted the research to complete Rwanda's Open Budget Survey 2012. Progress had been made between 2008 and 2010, but the score in 2012 indicated that the Government of Rwanda was shielding the budget and financial activities from public view.
International media covered his report, which in turn caught the attention of top government officials. Nkurunziza, his colleagues at CLADHO, and the Ministry of Finance met several times about it. Despite some very difficult moments, Nkurunziza held fast to his principles about what is required for citizens to hold the government accountable for its management of the public's money.
"It was a small price to pay for promoting the cause of good governance and transparency," he says.
His sacrifice eventually triggered the Government of Rwanda to reverse course and to release the budget. Nkurunziza turned a difficult interaction into an opportunity to liaise more closely with the government.
"The government recognized that they have challenges to overcome, and they have accepted to involve us," Nkurunziza explains.
Using USAID funding provided initially through a Millennium Challenge Corporation Threshold Program, and then with the support of Norwegian People's Aid, Nkurunziza and CLADHO assisted the Rwanda Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning to develop. (See right. Nkurunziza is also pictured holding it.) The guide helps educate Rwandan citizens about the purpose of the national budget and how they can get involved in developing and monitoring it at both national and local government levels.
CLADHO also hosts forums in rural and urban areas where citizen groups can weigh in on their priorities for public spending, which is vital given the discrepancy between citizens' and governments' concerns. In one district recently, Nkurunziza reports that the citizens gathered were very clear about what support they needed.
"They said, ‘We have requested clean water for five years, but the government has built a marketplace. We already have three marketplaces.'"
By making the budget guide less technical and more user-friendly, it can reach and be understood by as large a segment of the public as possible, enabling the Rwandan government to become more responsive to its citizens.
And that is why to Alexis Nkurunziza, the price is worthwhile.
In recent years, the US government launched policy reforms that make US foreign aid more accountable to you and local leaders like Alexis Nkurunziza.
Aid works best when it supports local actors to take action and change the circumstances which place or keep them or their fellow citizens in poverty—supporting them to build a dream, build a business, support their family, or help their community.
That's why Oxfam America is working to deepen the US government's commitment to making aid more effective. They can do so by putting more US aid dollars directly in the hands of people like Alexis Nkurunziza.
Note: Oxfam America doesn't take federal funds, but we do support effective development programs. In 2012, the Aid Effectiveness Team conducted research to highlight effective uses of the 1% of foreign aid the U.S. government spends on poverty reduction and other life-saving assistance. The people featured in this series are not necessarily receiving direct assistance from Oxfam.