A few weeks ago I returned to Rwanda for the 20th commemoration of the 1994 genocide. Seeing the ceremonies of remembrance I felt both a deep sadness and a guarded optimism. Sadness, as we remembered the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives during the brutal events of two decades ago. But also optimism as I saw how Rwandans are continuing to rebuild their society.

There are lessons we should learn from both sentiments. From the sadness we feel in remembering the events of 1994 we have to work out how to stop such horrors ever being repeated, how to make ‘never again’ a reality. Anyone who has visited the genocide memorial museum in Kigali will know that these lessons are not comfortable.  We are repulsed by what happened in Rwanda and we want to believe it was an aberration, a random outbreak of tribal violence, the result of factors unique to one time and place. But the truth is even harder to bear. The violence was well planned, building on a long period of political and media indoctrination. In this, and in the systematic dehumanisation of sections of society, the genocide in Rwanda has tragic similarities to the Holocaust or the Pol Pot era in Cambodia. And the genocide was most likely preventable, had the international community chosen to intervene.

After the genocide Rwanda faced problems few nations have ever imagined. One of the most pressing was that the collapse of government left the country no institutions through which to deliver for its citizens.  It is in Rwanda’s progress against these seemingly intractable challenges that we can find cause for optimism.

The government of Rwanda has been forced to innovate. People have heard about the progress: rapid economic growth, millions lifted out of poverty, huge progress in health care. But we’ve heard less about how that progress has been achieved. During my time working within the government of Rwanda for AGI I saw some of the underlying reasons for the success of Rwanda’s government and its remarkable efforts to deliver rapid progress and build its institutions at the same time, what we’ve called ‘taking two steps at once’ in our recent case study. It is a problem faced by governments around the world: do we focus on reforming our governments so they are equipped to get things done (‘capacity development’)? Or focus on delivering results now and come back to institution building later? The government of Rwanda is trying to do both together, and the early signs suggest there are lessons in their approach for government reforms everywhere.

Harvard Professor Matt Andrews describes Rwanda’s approach to capacity building as ‘full of common sense but oddly revolutionary because it is such a contrast to the way development is commonly done’. And the lessons we can learn are the same mix of things that sound simple but are hard in practice.

The first is that institutional reforms need to be focused on achieving a small number of concrete objectives. This sounds obvious but there are two trends that can pull governments off track..  One is that, particularly in the world’s poorest countries, everything feels like a priority –choosing is always difficult, but even more so where there are so many urgent, life and death issues to tackle. The other is the focus on copying international ‘best practice’. It is, of course, sensible to learn from what’s been tried elsewhere but often best practice can slip into imitating the form but not the function of institutions elsewhere; ending up with an organogram that looks like an effective ministry but doesn’t act like one. So we need to find the right balance between best practice and best fit.

The second lesson from Rwanda’s approach is that the mundane matters. Grand plans often fall down because of weaknesses in basic administration, the nuts and bolts of government such as human resource management or accounting –it’s hard to build an institution if you can’t hire the right people or pay them on time. So to succeed government strategies need to remember issues that may sound too small to be strategic.

Finally, there is a lesson for outsiders supporting governments to reform: the government needs to be in the driving seat if the reforms are going to last. That means the priorities for reform needed to be chosen by the government not imposed from the outside. But more fundamentally it means a change of tack for outside actors away from advising on best practice and towards facilitating local problem solving. Donors, consultants and advisers, and I include my own organisation in this, need to think like mechanics not co-pilots .

The theme for this year’s commemoration of the genocide was remember, unite, renew. The lesson of remembrance is clear: we must never allow such tragedies to happen again. But I hope we can also learn the lessons of Rwanda’s renewal: that it is possible to achieve rapid progress even against what seem like insurmountable odds.