Monthly Archives: October 2013

How Weak Systems Abet Corruption

Corruption at its base description is a deliberate complacency against good. It is an inability to stand on the moral high ground for right and good. Given, the perpetration of corruption is not based merely on the weak morals of individuals. In fact, one may posit that humans are inherently weak of moral good. Our base instincts are fiercely competitive and selfish at best. We have developed laws and regulations simply to keep these self-interest instincts in check and out of others’ harm.

It thus follows that banking on impeccable morals alone will never succeed as a tool for fighting corruption. Rather, the policy and physical environment in which people operate must be changed to not only discourage corruption but also enable the apprehension of all cases of the same.

Using a real life illustration, I will demonstrate how a weak and disjointed policy environment abets corruption. Flying into Kenya from abroad, every passenger is entitled a free luggage capacity of 46 kg on most airlines in economy class. This is the case with our national carrier, KQ. However, should the passenger’s final destination be Kisumu or Mombasa, the domestic free luggage allowance is capped at 20 kg. Again, this is standard practice in many other countries. Conveniently, KQ will allow international passengers to proceed with the entire 46 kg to either Mombasa or Kisumu free within 24 hours of the incoming international flight. This provision applies at the discretion of the check in staff at the counter. The staff (as proof to warrant the waiver) retain no documentation. Sadly though, therein lays the loophole exploited by KQ’s own errant employees to deny her much needed revenue.

A passenger with excess baggage presents at the check-in counter and is rightly told he will have to pay KSh 250.00 per kilogram above 20 kg. That is KSh 2,500.00 for 10 extra kilos. If the passenger hesitates to pay up, the check-in staff then gives an offer: pay half the amount, get no receipt and proceed with your flight. At this point, the passenger is in a moral dilemma: pay up the entire right amount or play along and save some cash. Our base instincts, honed for self-reward and advantage seeking will go for the later. The morally well-tuned passenger may insist on due process and bear the ‘loss’ gracefully.

But what is KQ’s contribution to this sad scenario? One may safely assume that KQ has not made her staff and passengers know why there is a limit on luggage. Both staff and passengers may simply think KQ’s baggage limits are solely for revenue generation; oblivious to the more important reason, which is safety. Due to this gap in knowledge, the errant staff and willing passenger accomplices unknowingly endanger lives by falsifying baggage weights for the gain of a few shillings. Using posters, leaflets and other targeted media at the airport lounges and in mainstream media, the airline can sensitize passengers on the real reasons the luggage weights need to be accurately declared and recorded. That way, passengers are less likely to take up offers to collude with staff in falsifying weights.

Second, it may be possible KQ is charging too steeply for their customers’ willingness-to-pay. As a result, this creates an incentive to avoid payment on the passenger’s side and an opportunity to activate this incentive on the check-in staff’s side. Of course, the loser is KQ: which still has to carry the extra baggage for no pay at all. It would be wiser to charge less and collect it all than charge heftily yet collect nothing.

Third and probably more important is the operational environment. The KQ staff that receives, weighs and records luggage is neither accountable nor traceable. This gives errant employees enough leeway for corrupt behaviour. Advanced technology today can link the check-in weighing scales to a central database that matches the counter to the attendant and the passenger automatically. This way, every piece of luggage traces to who checked it in, at what time and how heavy it was. This alone is enough deterrent since the check-in staff cannot manipulate the automatic recordings which are reviewed and audited by an independent third party. In more secure environments, the third eye captures all goings on. CCTV cameras are probably the best passive deterrents against petty crime and this kind of corruption fits the bill. Their other advantage is the evidence when crimes occur.

This weakness of policy is also evident at the customs counter. One enabler of corruption is the paucity of information. KRA does not display what items are tax-exempt or otherwise: or how much tax is due on what items. True, this information is available on their website but it would not hurt to boldly display it at their service counters. To add to the opacity, KRA has no way of knowing which of their staff inspected which luggage, at what time and what was brought in. On more than one occasion,  I have witnessed customs staff ask for tax from passengers for one item or another only to drop the demand in exchange for a few thousand shillings into their pockets. Often times, a single attendant or two are unable to inspect all the baggage coming in. Since most of the items on passenger luggage are small consumer items, I wonder whether KRA collects even enough to pay their errant staff in the current set up. One would rather KRA ignored this bit of revenue to stem their losses or if they have to collect it, then go all out: employ enough attendants, display the right information to passengers and even record the inspection on camera and log every baggage inspected to the officer responsible.

Technology alone however, is no panacea to corruptible individuals. At the same JKIA, I have witnessed severally parking attendants collude with errant taxi drivers to avoid paying for parking. This happens despite the presence of automatic chip card operated entry barriers into the airport’s parking lots. To begin with, the presence of an attendant at an automatic barrier is in itself defeatist. It is akin to having an attendant at an ATM or automatic door. The most apparent reason for this duplication is that even though entry and exit is automated; some payments are still made in cash and are handled by the attendant. Again, that offers a loophole. Errant attendants collude with some drivers to beat the entire system on the manually operated gates. The net effect is not just loss of revenue to the airport and parking company, but the attendant’s employer is also paying him/or her for work not done. This is yet another demonstration of a weak policy decision; create an automated entry side by side with a manual one. It does not take crooks long to find the gaps.

With a little more investment, the parking company could automate the entire process including cash handling. Without an attendant, such a system is designed to be fail-safe: i.e. when it fails, the barriers open and allow free entry or exit. The knowledge that a failed system will automatically lead to lost revenue means the company will be obliged to keep the system well maintained lest they drop out of business.

Fail-safe systems can be costly nevertheless. A rather queer fail-safe system at JKIA is the police road check. The roadblocks have failed; they allow anything in or out. The modus operandi in the aviation world is to treat every airport, particularly international, as facing significant security risks. JKIA is no exception. It always disturbs me that the police manning the roadblock will only inspect certain cars. As you may guess, these are taxis and other ordinary-citizen passenger car models. High-end swanky limos and SUV’s have an unwritten security pass. Curiously, PSV’s too do not go the scrutiny.

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If this profiling were based on any security intelligence, it would not be a source of worry. The sad fact is that this profiling is meant to raise illegal revenue to the police officers in the shortest, safest and most hassle free manner; it has nothing to do with security intelligence. The taxi driver therefore knows beforehand that they must pay KSh 100.00 at the roadblock. They dare not challenge this illegality because often than not, their car has one fault or another that would attract a much heftier penalty. The police on the other hand either does not realise the risk of collecting bribes at the expense of security checks or is simply not bothered. In the end, anyone and anything can drive into and out of the JKIA. Moreover, one does not even have to pay a bribe, just get an imposing car and the police will actually salute as you drive past.

While corruption may be blamed for the officers collecting bribes form errant drivers, a more salient factor is to blame for the large number of vehicles that go uninspected. We have perfected a culture of double standards into policy. This culture serves citizens based on their actual or perceived social class. As a result, ordinary people get security checks while the supposed ‘big men’ take the free pass. The average citizen follows a stricter version of the same laws but the high society has multiple unsolicited concessions at every turn. This not only exposes all of us to deadly security breaches but also takes away the collective ownership of our systems and structures from us. For we do not feel equally served by these system, in fact, some citizens feel unfairly targeted by overzealous rent-seeking officers. It is not surprising therefore how arms and grenades find their way all over the country despite numerous police roadblocks.

Without reiterating the extreme shortage of police officers in the country (in itself an unacceptable infraction on our sovereignty), it makes a compelling case to review the value of most roadblocks as they currently are. It may be better to have fewer real roadblocks than 1001 toll stations in the name of roadblocks. To make the roadblocks more effective for their security objectives, the current rulebook must be shredded. We must employ new innovative measures that hold officers and drivers accountable for their actions and responsibilities. Errant officers must be apprehended and punished in no different way from errant motorists. While at it, any profiling must be based on sound intelligence in the absence of which every vehicle must be equally screened.

As an illustration of radical off-the-box thinking in beating crime, stretches of the US-Mexico border are fitted with surveillance CCTV cameras that upload images to a web portal. Any US citizen can log into the site and virtually patrol the border. When they spot suspicious activity, often drug traffickers and illegal migrants, they alert the uniformed security personnel who review the data and swing into action. We may not copy-paste such solutions but they demonstrate that in a rapidly changing world, we cannot keep fighting crime (corruption, terrorism, etc.) using the same old means.

Finally, even as we change the policy and physical environment in which people operate to deter corruption, it must not be lost on us that someone must want a change for the better. It is easier for those in positions of leadership to lead the war on corruption as they have the resources and legislative framework to do so. The ordinary citizen, an even more important warrior in the fight against corruption, will always be the loser if the system is not aligned for non-tolerance. Short-term gains from corruption are a tempting bait to poorly paid officers and employees who know they will not be apprehended. Even as we need to doubt the moral probity of every individual in order to fight corruption, we need to trust a few leaders to set the ball rolling. It is these leaders that we lack.

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Social Inequ(al)ities will Drown Us All: Rich or Poor.

In Kenya today as in just about every other part of the world, we face a multitude of threats to human development and co-existence. Every country bears unique difficulties whose solutions are without saying, equally unique. However, on a general assessment, a number of challenges have been surmounted by solutions that appear quite similar overall if for a tweak here and there. Specifically, we face significant challenges in internal security, road safety and public sector services and utilities (health, education, housing, electricity and water). Given, a few Kenyans enjoy first-rate quality of these services but majority of the nation still live in low quality dwellings lacking the most basic utilities.

A dichotomy exists in which state-run services targeted at the masses are invariably inferior to their privately run counterparts targeted at those able to pay market prices. This is most evident in the health and education sectors. In other key public sectors like transport and the utilities, state divestiture is now mature with only regulatory functions and minimal shareholding left over. Even then, the entirely private road transport sector is one of the most chaotic and inefficient sectors. It is therefore apparent that ownership – state or private – is no panacea to inefficiency, rather policy and management.

According to the UNDP, the Human Development Index (a composite of three factors: education, income and life expectancy) is a fair measure of the quality of life and potential in a nation. Western European countries have consistently topped the world HDI rankings with Norway coming first 8 times in the last decade. Save for a few, nearly all the highly developed countries have programs that attempt to guarantee every citizen access to quality health care, education and decent employment. The hand of the state is heavy on these sectors in terms of both investment and regulation. In addition, these countries have social safety nets that encourage nearly all citizens to achieve their individual potential. Public transport for instance runs as the economic engine that it is: delivering workers to their jobs across the country efficiently – in comfort, safety and on schedule. Regulation and enforcement of fair employment practices on the other hand guards against poor pay, unfair working conditions and the vagaries of unemployment. The goal of these programs is to transform individual needs and aspirations into national goals to which everyone contributes according to their ability and enjoys according to their need.

In contrast, our undoing in Kenya is entire systems, institutions and sectors whose singular goal is to achieve the best interests of a select few at the expense of the public. Like the colonialists, many of our leaders see their positions as an elevation above the masses and therefore an entitlement to special benefits and treatment. It is the reason we spend more on chase cars, outriders and elite police for a few persons and leave the rest of the public at the mercy of police officers lacking the most basic crime deterrence and quick response tools! For the same lack of a public focus, we have set the minimum wage at a sorry $100/month when a few public officials draw $1000/sitting as allowances for meetings that are part of their regular work. Even though we know most road deaths occur among pedestrians and cyclists (70%) partly because they have to share the highways with high-speed motor traffic, we still build the same types of roads with no considerations (special lanes, crossings and footbridges) for this most-vulnerable majority. Food remains the major budgetary expenditure for most households due to the lack of concerted efforts at helping farmers produce cheaper and better food. Until recently, major highways would be shut down for hours for the president who would not show up after all!

Whatever the justification, these scenarios reinforce inequalities and limit the number of Kenyans actively participating in national development. These lopsided choices further hinder the achievement of individual aspirations of the majority and therefore keep the whole country in a perennial state of insecurity, increasing poverty and dwindling quality of life. It is high time focus shifted from ‘big man’ first to ‘common man’ (read everyone) first.

When we make our public schools the best schools, our public hospitals the best and develop a public transport that actually works, we shall be firmly on the path to real economic growth. Assuring every citizen a chance at proper education, health and an enabling environment to earn an income are probably the reasons for the existence of government. As of the moment, an unacceptably large swathe of the population is labeled as informal. Their children attend low quality public and shadowy private schools, they go to backstreet private clinics or the constrained public ones, they earn inhuman wages, they can barely afford good food and they are a security risk to everyone else including themselves. On the flip side, a much smaller number of citizens under the guise of state officers are feted and pampered at every turn. They do not care of a public transport system because in addition to their state-issue limousines they can choose which of the other two or three cars to use, they have their health insured, their children attend exclusive private schools and the walls around their homes are too high for any peeping Toms. Unfortunately, this class of Kenyans – the policy makers, political leaders and social elite – is like the dog running away from its own ugly tail. Their penchant at eating the state is a risk unto themselves and everyone else.

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To improve the quality of life in our country, we will have to focus on public good. The letter and spirit our policies will have to seek to impress the public rather than a select few. A focus on common good will achieve benefits for everyone while a focus on individuals will leave those same individuals exposed to the very ills they attempt to escape. The elite and middle-class have their place in every society but that place is really small and uncertain if the rest of society has no place.

Rather than each build walls round our homes and grab 5 or so officers to keep guard, it would be safer for us all to have the police equipped with the skills and tools to not just deter crime, but also apprehend nearly all criminals every time. We may have the option to take our kids to the best private schools but at the end of it all, those who miss a good education in the public schools will still be our collective problem to face. And however healthy one may be … complete with a private health insurance, doctor and all … the health problems of the rest of the public are as much your own as they are theirs. The minister who can halt all traffic and have his way to the office in time achieves nothing if the rest of the workers remain held in a gridlock.

While true leaders would naturally focus on satisfying the aspirations of their people rather than themselves, it is also a civic duty of citizens to demand of better from their leaders. In a situation where both leaders and citizens have sat on their laurels, the consequences are dire: continued depravation and disempowerment of the masses as leaders plunder and amass ever more wealth. In the long term something gives: a revolt by the masses due to difficult and poor living conditions may force a reformation of leadership. The leadership on the other hand may be forced to transform itself for better when the effects of their actions (and inaction) begin to bite them.

We can have a voluntary leadership reformation and put everyone (and the nation) on the path to sustainable economic success. Kenya is in the company of only a handful of nations in which public service is the most lucrative economic activity. For most developed countries, public service is a dedication and commitment to serve – the benefits of which are nowhere close to those of for-profit operations. Remuneration in the Kenyan public sector today does not reflect expertise, experience or value. If it did, doctors, teachers, police and nurses would not be the lowest paid in spite of the fact they offer key professional social services. It cannot be lost to policy makers that the services of medics, teachers and the police are so key to a sustainable economy and that there can be no meaningful development in the absence of security, good health and proper education.

As the name suggests, public goods achieve good for everyone; those who pay for them and those who do not as well as those who use them and those who do not. The outlay costs for most are prohibitive but in the long run, the efficiency and multiplier effect on individuals, economies and nations are worth every penny spent. When everyone has the opportunity to participate in nation building, the task of nation building becomes lighter, faster and better. Every one of us should focus on the greater good at whatever activity we engage in.