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Cooperatives and Poverty Reduction in Rwanda

In a country still recovering from civil war and genocide, Jessica Marie Chapman found a promise of hope. Chapman studied abroad in Rwanda for her Division III, researching the link between cooperative businesses and poverty reduction in the country.

Rwanda was embroiled in a civil war in the 1990s, with extremist factions of the country’s Hutu population slaughtering the Tutsi populations. The result was an estimated 800,000 people—20 percent of the population—dead.

As a point of comparison, the American Civil War left 2 percent of the country dead.

The war and genocide significantly hindered an already fragile economy. Today, more than 15 years later, the nation still bears scars from the conflict. Cooperatives, business organizations owned and operated by multiple individuals for their mutual benefit, provide an intriguing opportunity for the country’s economic rebuilding.

The cooperative movement is increasingly being promoted by international development organizations as a means for participatory development.

Chapman focused on the promotion of the cooperative sector in Rwanda as outlined in the country’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper.  Her research included visits to many cooperatives in Kigali, the capital, and interviews with officials working with development policy. “I was aiming to gain a sense of the sector’s current economic contribution to poverty reduction in the country,” she says.

The broad-ranging nature of a cooperative, many people investing in a single idea, allows for multiple growth opportunities. Cooperatives not only offer a means for attaining economic growth but also offer an opportunity for empowerment of otherwise marginalized populations in social and political realms of everyday life.

“The development of a cooperative sector in Rwanda can help the country diversify its exports, which right now center around tea and coffee,” Chapman says.

Susan Thomson
, chair of Chapman’s Division III faculty committee, is impressed with her work. “She’s studying something that no one else has studied,” Thomson says. “It’s fascinating to view Rwanda from a different perspective.”

Chapman found strength in learning independently at Hampshire. “I have learned a lot from the opportunity and encouragement to design and implement my own research project abroad,” she says. “It was daunting and overwhelming and very much a ‘learn from my mistakes’ experience. It’s been a process that I have truly gained a lot from and that I believe has prepared me well for future research.”

It’s also a process that has reaped academic rewards. In the fall, Chapman will begin graduate school, slated to receive her master’s degree in international affairs, at the New School in New York City.

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