National Water is a good example of what happens when systems work or don’t

Author, Benjamin Rukwengye. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

The NWSC can’t afford these lapses and backlash, especially as it has a record of efficiency in a system where there is a deficit of public confidence in the government

I was in Luweero, five years ago, when I interacted with a young man, Moses Kibalama. He was a pupil in one of the Primary Schools I was overseeing as part of my responsibilities at the time. The little chat hanging in the P5 class had his dream written in caps, “I want to be a construction engineer because I want to construct dams.”

It is the kind of thing you are likely to encounter in many primary schools around Africa. Dreams – realistic or not – are usually written out for the world to see. The kind of thing to make you wonder what happened to your own dreams and idealism about life.

For Kibalama, the dream was more authentic because there was no electricity in his village. Knowing Uganda, it would be foolhardy to bet against the situation being any different five years later. I remember agonising at the fact that for all its romanticism, the absurdity of Kibalama’s dream was that he was born in a country where there was no way to guarantee whether he would actually complete the next – and last – two classes of primary education, transition to high school, somehow manage to complete and by some miracle, go on to university to do the course of his dreams.

There are schools in this country that have never sent anyone to university – or even high school graduation if you scratched a little deeper. This is why visiting a primary school in any several tens of directions of the city should leave you heavy with sadness. Even worse, every time you think about your own dreams, it should sober you to the reality of the millions of others who will never be able to achieve theirs – mostly because of the same system that enables you to achieve yours.

How then do you build systems that enable Kibalama to become who he is meant to be? Well, by getting the small things right, every time, consistently. Let us take the events of this week for example. Something happens to your psyche when you set up and run a business. You become a lot more empathetic with other people who are doing business. I found myself in a similar situation this week when I received a Shs14.3m bill from the waterman. Yap!

Jim Carroll, ex-chairman of British global advertising agency, BBH, once said, “The successful agencies of the future will be those that integrate technological excellence with profoundly human qualities: combining efficacy with empathy… I suspect that we’ll need appetite and empathy more than ever.”

You would be hard-pressed to find a government parastatal that is better run than the National Water and Sewerage Corporation. So much that I didn’t even think much about the obnoxious bill, even if I knew I would never afford to pay for that much water – let alone consume it in my current and foreseeable future.

I simply tweeted the screenshot, joking that perhaps, my partner had somehow figured out a way to earn a side income by selling water to the guys constructing the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. The NWSC got in touch to say that they would immediately investigate the issue and in under 24 hours, had corrected the error and returned with the correct billing.

As I said, they are without a doubt one of the best-run government agencies in Uganda. We are not a country where the government is famous for being very functional or even efficient. Yet, there are agencies and officials who show up every day, and like Liverpool’s James Milner, consistently do exactly what is required of them. The gentleman who delivered the revised bill told me that he had made a genuine mistake and apologised. However, that does not negate the hundreds of others who are unsatisfied with the billing system and are suspicious of the water body (no pun). Strong systems must propagate transparency, be open to scrutiny and criticism, and at all times, act on behalf of the people.

When institutions work, millions of Kibalamas realise their potential and dreams. When they don’t, we lead to destitution and even criminalise and extrajudicially punish their circumstances. The NWSC can’t afford these lapses and backlash, especially as it has a record of efficiency in a system where there is a deficit of public confidence in the government.

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds. @Rukwengye