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All that rain, and yet no water

May 20, 2018 Leadership, Sunday Nation

An observant visitor to Nairobi over the past few weeks would have noted an interesting paradox: it has rained and rained and rained and then rained some more in the capital city; and yet the metropolis remains locked in water rationing, quite severely in some areas.

If this was your visitor, how would you explain the anomaly?

All is green and lush; indeed, I don’t recall the outskirts of the capital looking this verdant from the air for many years. The water is flowing everywhere: from the clouds to the ground, from the rivers to the roads. The only place we struggle to make the water flow is through the pipes and into the taps.

And so we get all the problems of excessive rain – floods, dam-bursts, ruined homes, lost lives – but little of the benefit. Why should this be?

That got me thinking about something: the difference between initial conditions and enabling conditions. Water falling out of the sky in large quantities is an initial condition – a gift, a benefaction, a bestowal. But merely enjoying this initial condition is not enough – many more things need to happen in order to get water into taps every day and everywhere.

You need a further set of enabling conditions to kick in: strong institutions involved in water harvesting and supply; forward thinking and advance planning; diversity of water catchments and storage; a culture of service in the public interest; genuine values around efficiency and probity; and scrupulous governance that prevents abuse of power. That is where this much-rained on city (and country) fails.

There are many cities and countries in which the initial condition – the gift of rain – is in fact missing; and yet you can turn a tap on anywhere, anytime, and water will flow out. Because those societies, lacking gifts, go strong on enabling conditions. They run tight institutions; they devote much brainpower to advance thinking; and they use scarce resources very, very carefully. We squander our gifts; they overcome their disadvantages.

Our curious visitor might roam around a little more and notice a few other paradoxes in this city of ours: a remarkable number of skyscrapers and apartment blocks, but very few tenants; a huge range of shopping malls, but a dearth of shoppers.

Again, we revel in initial conditions, but fail in enabling our long-term success. We have no shortage of capital, and a multiplicity of projects. But we lack the skills of intelligent foresight and discernment. We jump onto bandwagons because we see everyone else jumping onto them. We enjoy too much (seemingly) low-cost capital in the wrong places (giant projects of dubious value) and too little where it is actually needed (to fund small entrepreneurship, or self-help projects, or basic health and education. Or usable, drinkable water for all).

This country has great gifts. Just ask our neighbours. It has been given beauty, fertility and diversity. It was placed remarkably fortuitously on the map. And it has something even more valuable and rare: hard-working, enterprising, self-supporting people. The fact that these precious initial conditions are not enough points the finger at our failures to develop the other factors of success: resilient, independent institutions; collective, rather than merely tribal or familial spirit; and a culture of service to others.

Do those failures have a common root? That, too, could be worked out by our intrepid visitor. We have lots and lots of rulers, but a real shortage of leaders. We have the trappings of power, but not the responsibilities. We have braggadocio in buckets, but little by way of servant leadership. We have plenty of orders and directives, but inspiration or role-modelling seem alien to us. We have lords aplenty, but actual leaders? Not so much. Do you know what real leaders do? They create the conditions for others to succeed.

The last thing our quizzical and somewhat mystified visitor might ask us before flying out, though, is this: if leaders are your problem, where do they come from? Are they invaders imposed on you? Do they inherit their powers? Don’t you people go to the polls, and don’t you have the power to bring in people who know what they’re doing, who care about the public, who will play it right and not steal from the public purse? Don’t those people offer themselves for election, and what do you voters do when they appear?

And that is when we would wave sheepishly to the visitor and walk away.

(Sunday Nation, 20 May 2018)

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