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How a national campaign is attacking those who waste the time of others

How much time do you waste every day because of the tardiness of others? Waiting for a meeting to start, when the other participants have not shown up? Sitting around at a doctor’s clinic where you had booked an appointment for an hour earlier? Awaiting a report that was due last week, and without which you cannot move on with your own work?

If you are like most of us, you fritter away a great deal of time in this way. Add up all the time wasted thus in the economy, and you may find yourself staring at a very large number indeed. Modern economies require millions of people to interact, to exchange goods and services, to work in teams, and to co-ordinate their activities. If these interactions occur at the time they are supposed to, all is well. If they do not, then wastage occurs and resources are lost.

How big are these losses? Ecuador, a South American country famed for its lack of punctuality, has added up the numbers. In this country, more than half of all public events start late. Ecuador thinks it loses at least US$ 700 million every year due to lateness; perhaps even as much as US$ 2.5 billion. Ecuador’s economy is about twice the size of ours, so that is serious money. That realisation was enough to spur the country into action – after centuries of lassitude.

At precisely 12.00 noon on October 1st last year, a gunshot was fired in the air by Ecuador’s Olympic walking champion. The citizens of Ecuador all stopped and synchronised their watches and clocks. This was the symbolic launch of a national campaign against lateness. Posters extolling punctuality have since been placed in every city and village in the country. People who waste the time of others are berated. Hundreds of public and private institutions have signed up to a solemn promise to keep to time. Double-sided signs are put up at the doors of meetings. For a short period, they say: “Come in: you’re on time.” After a brief interlude, they are turned around to warn: “Do not enter: the meeting began on time.”

The campaign is thought to be having a beneficial effect. People who are late now lose a great deal more than those who are punctual, because they are barred from participation and are the subject of derision. The principle of punctuality is being embedded in the national psyche of Ecuador; it is fast becoming a shared value.

In terms of the economic impact of lateness, can Kenya be too far behind Ecuador? I have only ever attended one public event that actually started on time. Where the chief guest is a government dignitary, the duly assembled often languish for hours in the hot sun, awaiting the arrival of the bigwig. In fact, the degree of tardiness is often directly proportionate to the perceived self-importance of the personage in question. Making you wait is a method employed by CEOs, ministers, permanent secretaries et al, to show you just how much more important their time is than yours. It is the ego rearing its ugly head. It is a way of keeping you in your place by showing you disrespect. And conditioned as we are to accepting the behaviours of the high and mighty, we generally acquiesce, ever so meekly. The same people who keep you waiting for hours for an appointment, then also keep you waiting for years for economic development.

We do this ourselves, all the time. If we know somebody of importance has arrived to see us, we drop everything at a moment’s notice. If the person waiting to see us is a job seeker, a rural relative or a minor salesperson, well, we carry on with what we are doing. Those people can wait, because their lives (and therefore their time) are small and lacking in consequence. This behaviour diminishes us as individuals and damages us as an economy.

Does this mean we all need to be bound to the clock, rushing around with no time to spare, slaves to the ticking seconds and minutes? Not at all. It merely means we have to understand which time is ours to waste, and which belongs to others.

If your time is your own, do with it what you will. Spend it as you wish. Idle it away in flights of fancy. But if you have given your time to others, give it properly, freely and with good heart. A limited amount of time is all that any of us have in this life. Squandering the time of others is, or should be, an offence.

A national campaign, of the type being championed by the Ecuadorians, makes a great deal of sense. It is a call to shame, a public demonstration of virtue. As more and more people around you become punctual, the benefits of punctuality grow. A virtual circle is put in place, and then the campaign becomes self-sustaining.

It is a lesson to us in Kenya, where we have watched the degradation of all the values we once held dear. Today, we wring our hands helplessly, decrying the state of the nation. Yet, if we really chose to attack corruption, intolerance or tribalism as undesirable behaviours, we could do so. National campaigns work in attacking HIV/Aids or in the designing of a national dress; why not use them to attack behaviour?

The truth is, sullied values are at the root of many of our problems. We cannot have meaningful development in the economy until we attack the rot in our values. Our institutions can only be as strong as our widely held beliefs, no stronger. If a majority of us believe, rightly or wrongly, that corruption is now part of us and inescapable, then, well, inescapable it will be. But if enough of us think of it as a scourge to be attacked through national sensitisation and awareness, we may have a chance of taking it on.

Once upon a time, this sort of value building was done in family homes, in churches, temples and mosques, in schools and in community centres. But as we ‘modernise’ and desert these institutions in droves, where are we to receive the teachings that build moral fibre? Our new temples – the TV screen, the nightclub, the shopping mall – are the last places in which to learn collective virtue. Yet they are all that is left to us.

A country that can spend KShs 3 billion on cars for People Important in Government (the acronym I leave to you) should be able to spend a bit of money on addressing the heart of its problems. A country that can spend weeks worrying about the precise colours that should go into an imaginary national dress, should find the time to worry about collective virtue.

The Ecuadorians are showing the way by demonstrating the virtue of keeping to time. Will their experiment work? Only time will tell.

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