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Let’s all thank Kalembe and Koigi

There is a story often told about work and productivity (The Economist carried a version of it recently). An economist is out for a stroll, and comes upon some workers digging beside a river to build a dam. The workers are all using spades, and the work is back-breaking and laborious and takes forever.

Intrigued, the economist steps forward to ask the supervisor, his deputy and their assistant: “Why are these people using spades? There is earth-moving equipment available that would do this work in an hour or so.” The managerial trio stare at him in horror: “But that would give all these people nothing to do. We are creating jobs for the country.”

“Ah, my mistake”, replies the economist. “You are creating jobs. I thought you were building a dam.” He leaves them with an idea: “Why don’t you give them spoons instead of spades, and create even more jobs?”

That economist might have been Professor Michael Porter, who was in town this week, and the workers might well have been Kenya’s assistant ministers. Professor Porter is the world’s leading authority on global competitiveness (they don’t come any higher), and many people beat a path to Strathmore Business School at very short notice to hear him speak. I personally cancelled all engagements to be there to receive wisdom from an original source.

Porter told his audience: forget everything else I say today, but don’t forget this one thing. If you want Kenya to be rich, you must have great productivity. The value you produce in return for the inputs you consume is the only thing that matters. It doesn’t matter how many people, machines or resources you have. All that matters is the equation connecting inputs and outputs.

I have been beating that particular drum in this column for more than four years now, and trust me, I’ll keep beating it even louder until someone listens and we fix our productivity problem. The inefficiency with which we use our human resources, incidentally, is not just about manual workers. The problem of meaningless, valueless jobs starts very high up.

Kalembe Ndile let the cat out of the bag last week when he revealed that as an assistant minister in the tourism docket, he has no job to do. Or rather, as he described in his inimitable style, his job is to “kaa kama picha“. An assistant minister’s job is a non-job, a joke job, said Kenya’s best-known squatter’s son. He is there to read his minister’s speeches at events too trivial for the main man to grace. He is there to maintain quorum in parliament.

The equally voluble Koigi Wamwere went a stage further, allowing NTV cameras to spend an entire morning in his office. There, they recorded his typical day: he reads the newspapers; he checks post and e-mail; he surfs the Net; he speak to constituents. Many hours of inactivity later, the reporters left, their eyes glazed over by the sheer tedium of it all.

Thank God for the Koigis and the Kalembes, I say. Most who get suddenly elevated to minister status rapidly become part of the system and its deceptions. Most would die rather than admit they have sweet nothing to do. Most would exaggerate the enormity of the responsibilities of state. It takes real honesty to stand up and say: This job’s a joke, folks.

And the joke’s on you. Assistant ministers carry off a million bob or more of your money every month in salaries and allowances, and there are fifty or so of them. They have staff joining them in doing nothing; they have guards guarding their inactive serenity; they have well-appointed offices in which to do nothing in style. Some, it is alleged, have up to four cars given to them by the state to ferry them around in supreme comfort so that they can do nothing in different places.

This problem begins from the top. We could sack all 50 assistant ministers and the only reverberations we would feel in the economy would be that of money being saved and available for investment. We could do the same for half the cabinet, with similar results: we have twice as many full ministers as we actually need.

When Narc Kenya announced its top line-up recently, it named 50-plus positions. ODM’s idea of government is apparently to have vice-persons, deputy-persons and assistant-persons for every position; enough to fill a banqueting hall. The broad church, the big tent, the monumental edifice – that is the language of productivity in Kenyan leadership. Jobs for the boys (and a few girls), in other words.

Jobs should be measured by the work done. More jobs are created when work is done well. Average wages go up when work is done well. Companies prosper when work is done well. Standards of living rise when companies prosper and workers are paid more. Good jobs equal prosperity for all. Bad jobs keep us poor and unskilled. We are poor because we do things badly. That’s all there is to it. But it’s quite a job to explain it.

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