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What Kenya needs: Shock therapy

Nov 30, 2008 Strategy, Sunday Nation

I touched on a subject before being interrupted by the US poll. I wrote in early November that we cannot advance as a society until we learn to respect rules, and that most of us only behave well when we are compelled to do so.

I termed the phenomenon ‘moral entropy’: if you don’t force people to do the right thing, over time they will descend into doing all the wrong things. You cannot depend on people’s good nature to improve society; you have to impose rules.

I suggested that in Kenya we are already deep into moral entropy. There appears to be a collective collapse in the willingness to observe rules, and we see this every day on our roads, in our courts, and in the corridors of power. What’s the answer? Shock therapy.

This week, let me elaborate on what shock therapy would mean for Kenya. The main idea is to jolt people back into good behaviour – by providing a series of short, sharp shocks. You need to alarm people, because appealing to their sense of right and wrong will not (on average) work: we are beyond being talked to.

So here’s how it would work on the roads, one of the prime arenas of behaviour collapse. Assume for a moment that a Shock Therapist is appointed to take charge of road discipline. Suspend disbelief and assume that this person has the full backing of the law and of the highest powers in the land. Assume also that these powers are incontrovertible for a period of time, and no amount of noise-making from affected parties will prevent the shock therapy from taking place.

This is what the Roads Shock Therapist would do: appoint a special crack team of enforcers, combining the best officers from the police force with top-notch professional talent from outside. This team would be small, but it would have the final say on what happens on the roads. And it would have to be a team steeped in ethical values, above reproach.

The team would be despatched to roam around in unmarked vehicles across a selected area at random, and would deliver instant justice to those who break traffic laws. For example, any public-service vehicle caught jumping lanes, over-lapping, driving on footpaths etc, would be stopped immediately and the driver and conductor arrested and charged. The driver would have his license confiscated for at least 3 months, and the vehicle would be impounded for at least a month. Passengers would also be forced to pay a small penalty each.

If this is done enough times, and is observed by all, watch good behaviour return to the roads in a matter of days. The trick is to be ruthless, and to hit people where it hurts – in their pockets. Matatu owners, drivers and even passengers would soon be enforcing good behaviour – because the alternative is too awful.

That would apply to you and me too, dear reader: if we jump lights and overtake like maniacs and are seen by the special team, we pay – big. Instant fines (fully receipted and accounted for) large enough to make your eyes sting, and loss of your driving licence for a period. Watch then how we all learn to do the right thing!

What will work on the roads will work elsewhere. If contractors play games with road building, they are charged punitive penalties for every week of delay. If any road is built anywhere in the country which develops potholes and cracks in a short period, that contractor is blacklisted from all public works for 5 years, and all government officials who approved the construction are sacked immediately and charged with abuse of office.

If any businessman, bureaucrat or politician is suspected of corruption, a specially appointed crack team investigates and prepares the case against them. They are not only taken to court, but they are actually jailed for a long period. They also have to pay a non-negotiable fine that reflects the size of their crime. Once the first big man goes into a cell and stays there, and is forced to declare bankruptcy, watch the culture of impunity crumble.

You get the drift. Small, highly trained, highly paid crack teams can be appointed to work on all the key problem areas. They report to the highest authority, and even that authority cannot dismantle them for political reasons. They work ruthlessly, and people suffer – genuinely, publicly – for breaking rules. No one is exempt. Watch order return.

The fatal flaw in shock therapy? You need the ultimate leadership of the land to want it to happen, to be steadfast in applying it, to ignore all the screaming that will no doubt ensue. It can be done. It is not a million miles away from what countries like Singapore have used to bring order from chaos. We have to want it enough, and we have to take the consequences. The medicine will be unpleasant, and there will be some wrong doses administered. But ultimately, it will save us.

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