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Why we all have to learn to set high standards

May 02, 2004 Success, Sunday Nation

Reading Kenyan newspapers these days tends to be distressing pastime. Consider the following news items that appeared over the past few weeks:

Forty-one people were injured, two seriously, when a train rammed into a speeding bus in Athi River town. How did this happen? Because the bus driver approaching the railway crossing, in a mindless bid to race with the train, reportedly chose to accelerate instead of stopping. Dozens of people may now carry permanent injuries because of this man’s idiocy.

In another incident, nine policemen attached to the ‘crack’ Anti-Stock Theft Unit beat a mentally sick man to death. The victim had apparently been causing a disturbance and bit a policeman on the finger. The nine policemen reportedly sought the disturbed man out the following day, beat him mercilessly and watched him bleed to death.

Lastly, a policeman escorting the body of a shooting victim accidentally set off his own gun and killed himself. The police constable was perched on the back of a pick-up, accompanying the body and bereaved relatives to the mortuary. The man inadvertently discharged his rifle, killing himself and wounding the grieving relatives.

What do we do when we read reports like this? Most of us shake our heads in dismay, wonder what the world is coming to, and then get back to whatever we were doing. What we should be doing is to feel an overwhelming anger. We must stand up and say: “Enough!” We must stop tolerating this ridiculous state of affairs, immediately.

The driver of a public-service vehicle is no ordinary jobholder. He has the lives of hundreds of passengers literally in the palm of his hand, week after week. If he is reckless, negligent or just plain incompetent, many others will pay the price. Why is such an important post filled by half-wits and wild men? How many of our 3,000-plus annual road deaths are caused by sheer driver ineptitude? Should this job not be subjected to the most rigorous of selection procedures? Should annual retesting of driving skills not be a mandatory requirement?

Policemen, equally, hold lives in their hands every day. Again, why have we allowed the pathologically cruel and the irredeemably inept to come anywhere near a police uniform? What standards are we setting when we select, train and monitor our police officers? Certain skills should be mandatory in every police officer, at every level: critical evaluation; cool-headedness; and intelligent assessment of evidence. What skills do we seem to be looking for? The following, apparently: inherent cruelty; an easy willingness to abuse the badge and firearms provided; and an utter lack of discernment.

If we do not learn to set some standards for ourselves, we will not move an inch forward in the development race. I have said it here many times before: economic development is about mind, not matter. The greatest resource any country holds is not its mineral deposits, its forests, its landscapes or even its access to easy funding: it is its human capital. A country can possess next to nothing by way of physical resources, but can still dominate the world stage if it has that most valuable of assets: a thoughtful, hard-working, and determined workforce that sets itself high standards.

By tolerating such absurdly low standards of performance, we are consigning ourselves to remain in the world’s dustbin. The issue is not just about drivers and policemen, critical though those positions might be: the lack of standards in human resources spreads through the entire economy. Because we shrug our shoulders at the antics of our bus drivers, we also look away when confronted with the ineptitude of our high-placed civil servants. Because we don’t complain when a policeman can’t handle his gun, we are not perturbed when a cabinet minister cannot handle his portfolio.

Why have we deadened ourselves so? Just look at what we have tolerated for two decades or more. A procession of circus clowns that has filled the post we call His Worship The Mayor of Nairobi, and that has danced for the cameras as the city has crumbled around it. Cabinet ministers who are given the bendera as a reward for political services rendered, and who seem to have next to no idea what their ministries do. A beast called an Assistant Minister who has no real duties to fulfil, and who whiles away the hours ranting and raving on behalf of his political handlers, calling endless press conferences to share his unwelcome and unwholesome thoughts with us. And lecturers and professors who are paid so little that they would actually be mad not to engage in private business and extra-curricular activities to make ends meet.

Our tolerance of low standards seeps through society. We expect things made in Kenya to fall apart, and they do. We expect shop assistants to be surly and clueless, and our expectations are met every day. We accept that the average teacher may struggle with basic grammar and arithmetic. We acknowledge that our research institutions are moribund. We know that the dry-cleaner will ruin our clothes. We accept that workers will dig trenches in our roads and leave them like that. We know that ministers will not attend parliament to answer questions put to them. We understand that managing directors can preside over monumental losses in their corporations for several years.

We all know these things; we all look away. I repeat: “Enough!” Skills and performance are everything. If we fail in our homes, we fail in our cities. If we fail in our jobs, we fail in our companies. If we fail in our ministries, we fail in the world economy. Development requires world-beating ideas. It demands research that pushes out the boundaries of knowledge. It calls for a single-minded discipline in the work that we do. It thrives on the satisfaction that comes from a job well done.

Poor performance and low standards are not inevitable in a poor country. Standards are a state of mind. They emerge from the individual, and diffuse through society. If we tolerate ineptitude in government, that is a fault in you and in me, not in government. We all have to work to the highest possible standards, and to demonstrate those standards to our children, our friends, our colleagues and our institutions.

And we must learn to complain, and loudly. I can sound off in this column, but what should you do? You should write immediately to the managing directors of the bus companies whose drivers cause accidents. You should write to the new commissioner of police when you read of the antics of his juniors. You should report speeding matatus dutifully to the regulators. You should complain to supervisors when staff members are unhelpful. You should attend public forums and speak your mind. You should call radio stations and add your voice when dereliction of duty is exposed.

And then, painfully slowly but remarkably surely, the bar of performance will be raised.

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