Great societies are built on small things – and states – that work

Author: Daniel K Kalinaki. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

Instead of trying to solve intractable problems like poverty, why not humble ourselves and start by building the capacity to deal with the small problems...

In October at least 150 people were killed during Halloween Day stampede in Seoul, South Korea. In December a stampede at a concert in London left two people dead. There are other examples from other places.

Just so we are clear, therefore, the New Year’s Eve stampede at Freedom City Mall in Kampala that left at least 10 people dead is not a uniquely Ugandan problem, or one that cannot happen elsewhere. Crowds are hard to manage anywhere, and things can go south very quickly.

However, having nipped the whataboutism in the bud, how about some genuine soul-searching. Put your hand up if you think a stampede at a crowded event in Uganda took you completely by surprise. Is that a hand in the back? Anyone? No one? I thought so. Event organisers are not responsible for the impatience and temporary madness that can grip a crowd. But they, and the authorities generally, are responsible for putting in place measures to minimise the risk of such madness occurring, or its impact when it does.

This is not a treatise on modern crowd control in third world countries dealing with the intersectionality between neo-capitalistic societies and the excitement of rural-urban migration.

Rather, it is a clarion call for a return to the basics in the management of society and state affairs. Bureaucracies are much maligned, and often with good reason; they can evolve to serve their own agendas and interests if their power and incentive structures are not checked. But functional bureaucracies ensure that the boring and important nuts and bolts that hold societies together remain fastened. When a reveller walks into a venue to watch fireworks, they assume that someone, somewhere, has inspected the venue and certified it as fit to put on such an event.

Yes, one might be expected to look around and make a common-sense decision to walk away if they feel a venue is too crowded. But we do not expect that reveller to check that the fire extinguishers are working, or that the fire exits are not locked with a padlock.

When you walk onto a plane you do not demand to see the pilot’s qualifications and attestation of completed flying hours. You assume, correctly, that someone, somewhere, has checked that the buggers at the front know how to get the damn thing up and down in one piece, ceteris paribus.

When you walk onto a boat for a leisure cruise to an island, you do so in the expectation, not merely hope, that someone has inspected it and certified its seaworthiness. You are not expected to go below deck to check that the gaping hole in the hull was not filled in with concrete!

A chronic complaint in this column is the oversupply of the state where it is not needed, and its conspicuous absence where it is most needed. Opposition politicians cannot get half-way through a church hymn before they are rounded up by anti-riot police anywhere in this country. But a building will catch fire and burn to the ground before a battery is found to start a fire tender, or a water hydrant to fill it up.

When the state stops enforcing these small things, big things start to go wrong. Bus drivers yank out speed regulators and let their tin coffins loose on the roads. Young men driving over-loaded trucks ferrying sand careen down narrow roads mowing down anything in their path.

Event organisers cram 1,000 people in a space meant to hold a quarter of the number, without any regard for health and safety. Fuel stations, timber yards and all sorts of factories pop up in the middle of residential areas. Factories pour their toxic waste into storm drains which carry the untreated waste into freshwater bodies, from which drinking water and fish are drawn. Century-old forests are cut down to make room for unhealthy sugar. Expired food is repackaged and sold on the open market. Responsible folks look the other way as substandard goods are allowed into the country – from electric cables that start fires, to counterfeit contraceptives that leave young women carrying unwanted pregnancies.

Instead of trying to solve intractable problems like poverty, why not humble ourselves and start by building the capacity to deal with the small problems that affect day-to-day life. Like managing the traffic and inspecting vehicles for roadworthiness, or enforcing planning permissions, the building code, product standards and labour rules. A state that can’t manage these small problems cannot be expected to deliver seismic shifts like “poverty eradication.” Provide affordable and functional public services, enforce contracts, and ensure the rule of law. Then leave us alone.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter.

[email protected]; @Kalinaki


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