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Why some signboards are threat to economic growth

By XN Iraki | September 29th 2015 at 10:25:23 GMT +0300

Signboards with inscriptions like ‘Black spot ahead’ and ‘Caution, slippery floor’ are common in Kenya. We see them so often that at times we do not think about them much. Yet, such signs reflect what is wrong with our economy.

Take the ‘Black spot’ signboard. If am new on that road, what am I supposed to do after seeing it? Stop and write my will?

Why did engineers create a black spot when technology exists to remove it? We can even simulate traffic flow to see the effects of speed, wind, loading and so on.

What is even more curious is that such a signboard can remain there for years, with accidents occurring year after year.

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The remedies are often strange, like putting bumps on a highway or reducing the speed limit, which makes a mockery of inventing the car. How was 80km per hour for public service vehicles arrived at? Why has it not changed despite advances in auto technology?

On slippery floors, one wonders why it was made slippery in the first place; I thought it is easy to make a floor anti-slip.

The two cases, and I could add many more, reflect our thinking. We create problems, often deliberately through shortcuts, and hope someone else will solve them, or that they will not affect us or those close to us. It is not just with roads and floors. We have babies born every day who will grow into adults requiring social services, from schools to hospitals. Why don’t we plan for this? Don’t we take a census every 10 years? Most national problems are predictable.

So why do we fail to solve them?

Some blame colonialists, who had everything done for them. There was a cook, gardener, dhobi, and so on. There were also supervisors, called nyaparas, who reported any problem to the master (bwana) instead of solving it themselves.

Exponential growth

When uhuru came, we carried that thinking forward, only that the actors were different. We still nurture this attitude at home, in schools and at work. Children expect parents to solve their problems. If the parent is not there, there is a househelp to turn to.

In schools, teachers make matters worse by giving assignments that start with: ‘Solve the following problems’. Are you surprised that mathematics is the most unpopular subject in school? Are there any ‘problems’ to solve in history or other social sciences?

Tuition makes matters worse; students have no time to learn to solve problems as they are forever being taught.

Anyone surprised that despite exponential growth in Kenya’s higher education, most students are studying courses that have few problems to solve? The popularity of higher education is partly driven by the need to keep away from, not solve, problems — you can be promoted to earn more and do less; ‘others’ will work.

By the time we leave school, we have already learnt that solving problems is tiresome, and it is better if other people solve them for us. Nowadays, youngsters rehearse how to avoid solving problems through cheating in exams.

Others have blamed our reluctance to solve problems on religion, where we appeal to higher powers for solutions. At times we blame satan and evil spirits. Ever wondered why herbalists, witchdoctors and witches all co-exist despite rising literacy?

Some could argue that once we leave school, we quickly learn that problems are better if left alone. And there is always someone else to solve national problems.

Other times we find our attempts to solve problems met with disbelief and disapproval. With time, we start suffering from helplessness. We stop bothering. We also realise there are no rewards for going beyond the call of duty. Noted that lots of employees nowadays look disinterested at work despite rising joblessness?

Enough lamentation. Where do we go from here?

I still recall seeing a signboard along a superhighway in the US: ‘If you see a pothole, please call this number’. I hope that one day we shall think like that and see ourselves as problem solvers.

That will need us to start early, so that children learn that problems are an integral part of our lives, and avoiding them makes life boring and slows the economy. We should not put up signboards for black spots; we should remove them by redesigning the road.

Clearly, we need to start thinking scientifically — of cause and effect. We need to think long term, even beyond our own lifespans.

Humanity has made great strides throughout history by confronting problems, not by avoiding or talking about them, which is the staple of social sciences. We invented fire, the pill, cars, phones, governments, and more, to solve our problems and grow economies. Solving problems is the bedrock of growth.

One of the hallmarks of civilisation is scientific thinking, seeing the cause and effect of your actions or decisions. Would the economic fortunes of this country change if we had more scientists and engineers in leadership positions like in China?

Emotional ideas

Interestingly, we are very quick to import emotional ideas, like music and political systems, but not the thinking behind the growth of nations. We copied the US political system, but not the pragmatic philosophy behind it. We copied devolution, but not the responsibility that goes with it.

Observers will note that the main difference between developed and developing countries is the way they confront and solve problems.

It does not matter if they are technical, like building a tunnel under the English Channel, or exploring the outer fringes of the solar system, or social problems like teenage pregnancies and joblessness. In developed countries, they solve their problems, not just talk about or around them. In our country, we prefer talking about them and shifting blame; no wonder they remain unsolved.

Problems are not bananas, they do not need time to ripen.

The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi School of Business. [email protected]

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