Tuesday May 27 2014

Africa’s root problem is the failure to keep records and review them

By Nick T. Twinamatsiko

The failure of chief administrative officers to submit names of the civil servants in their districts to the Ministry of Finance highlights what may well be Africa’s fundamental problem: inability to keep and review records. This explains why Africa hardly progressed over the pre-colonial centuries and why recent events in Nigeria, Malawi, South Sudan and our own country demonstrate that, “50 years after independence, we still can’t stand alone,” as Sunday Monitor columnist Timothy Kalyegira has rightly put.

There can be no real progress when there are no records. While it is possible that some of our ancestors had scientific and philosophical minds, what is certain is that none of their discoveries or theorems, if there were any, were put on record. While Isaac Newton could say he had looked far by standing on the shoulders of the giants that had gone before him, his African contemporary had to start from scratch since there were no records to read and study.

The absence of records meant that every generation of our ancestors had to start from scratch. Condemned to this cycle for centuries, we realised no real growth in science or the arts or statecraft, and when people from Newton’s country came to colonise us, we couldn’t put up any real resistance. The failure to keep records was Africa’s curse. And sadly, it still is.

Chief administrative officers have no ready records of the civil servants in their charge, and have to spend months frantically putting them together when they are asked to submit them. This is just a tip of the iceberg. Many other records and reports pertinent to work in the districts must be unavailable. And it’s not just districts. Even in central government and in the various government agencies, records and reports are hard to come by. The few available reports are shallow.

The African elite may have many academic certificates to show for his many years in school, but asking him to write detailed records and reports of his activities is subjecting him to an impossible burden. He may have learnt about Method Study and Work Measurement at some point on his academic trajectory, but that knowledge served its purpose of helping him get a paper, and he has no use for it now. Save for a few brief memos and minutes of meetings, the oral tradition, which condemned our ancestors to colonialism, reigns supreme in our public and private sectors. Yet, an organisation that keeps no detailed records of its activities, or that does not review and act on the records, has as much chance of realising efficiency as our pre-colonial ancestors had of inventing an airplane.

In a recent commencement lecture at Sarah Lawrence College, American public intellectual Fareed Zakaria said this: “Thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. When I begin to write, I realise that my ‘thoughts’ are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to think through them and sort them out.”

He further disclosed that Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon) insists that his senior executives write memos – often as long as six printed pages – and begins senior management meetings with a period of quiet time – sometimes as long as 30 minutes – while everyone reads the memos and makes notes on them.

Many of the “thoughts” that inform critical decisions in our government departments and agencies are in fact “a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them”. If public officers made an effort to put these “thoughts” down, they would realise their absurdity, and ultimately make better decisions that could make public service as efficient as organisations like Amazon.

The African will be a straggler in the civilisation race until he becomes comfortable with recording and reading things.

Mr Twinamatsiko is a civil engineer and novelist. nicklison@yahoo.com