This paper offers a critical examination of the claim that donors’ support to civil society contributes to democratisation in Rwanda. The theoretical assumptions underlying the liberal discourse on civil society and democratisation are presented and illustrated by donors’ policies and political analysis of contemporary Rwanda. In essence, the donors assert that lack of civil society capacity is the main obstacle to democratisation. Secondly, an alternative explanatory model of contemporary Rwandan politics is presented, which identifies authoritarian political structures as the root of the country’s democratic deficit. Lastly, a third explanatory model is constructed in the form of complementary theoretical contributions critical of the dominant school of democratisation. It argues that the liberal democratic model is unequipped to address key structural characteristics of Rwanda, specifically the continued divide between rights-bearing citizens and subjects unable to exercise their rights in any meaningful way. There is thus the need to go beyond the liberal minimalistic definitions of democracy to a more substantive definition which concerns citizens’ ability to make use of political instruments.
The paper then explores the three different models’ ability to explain two key processes in contemporary Rwanda, specifically the government’s long-term development plan, the Vision 2020, and the ongoing decentralisation process. The empirical accuracy of the explanatory models is assessed, and serves as an entry point to a discussion about donor interventions’ impact on Rwandan state – society relations. The findings indicate that donor support to civil society since the year 2000 has not contributed to democratisation in Rwanda. This holds true for both minimalist and substantive definitions of democratisation. Rather, the result of donor interventions has been the formation of a ‘bifurcated’ Rwandan civil society, as donors have stimulated the growth of an elite section of civil society consisting of professionalised, urban-based and advocacy-oriented organisations. These have, however, been unable to perform key functions attributed to civil society in the liberal discourse, such as influencing policy and holding power-holders accountable. This is due, I argue, to the combination of the strength of the Rwandan state, which is remarkable in a regional comparative perspective, and the government’s preferred mode of civil society as an extension of the state in service provision rather than as a political actor.