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Work ethics in Uganda

Work ethics in Uganda

The debate about whether Ugandans are the laziest people in East Africa has evoked different emotions nationwide. This discussion has been on since the launch of the events leading to the Work Culture and Ethics day to be held on July 28, 2017.

The debates have been a breath of fresh air in our society and it is healthy for the nation. While some people have said that they feel insulted, many others agree that there is a problem that needs to be corrected. Only when there is a collective agreement that there is a problem will the healing process start.

There is a section of people who have questioned how the research that informed the conclusions that were published was conducted.  Others have suggested a number of things that explain the low productivity of Ugandans.  Justifications have included: Low pay, lack of employment contracts specifying performance measurements and lack of proper supervision.

The opportunity that we have now is moving beyond lament. We have been a nation in lament for far too long.  We lament about corrupt leaders, ineffective government programmes, mass corruption, extremely shoddy work by contractors, reckless driving on the roads, terrible customer service and many other situations.  We have come to expect these deplorable standards and even accept them.

This is without exception, whether from our politicians, church or even in our marriages.  Our daughters grow up being told that all men cheat and that they will not find faithful husbands.

  They are told, therefore, not to have high expectations in marriage. If the men are cheating, who are their partners in crime?  We lament bribe-taking traffic policemen, but do not ask who is giving the bribes. We lament about foreigners taking over our jobs whether at CEO level or even as low as domestic service level. 

The very people who lament agree that most often, a Kenyan maid works harder and is trustworthy compared to the average Ugandan maid.  They will say the same about bank managers, hotel managers and other senior staff.  Ugandans will tell you that at the work place, people spend about eight working hours a day but their output will be not more than three hours’ worth of work. 

We complain about lack of integrity in our politicians and go ahead to elect them when they offer themselves.  We complain about the judiciary, fake goods that have flooded our markets, inflated procurement processes but shy away from mentioning who fuels the malpractices. Many people believe the system is too crooked to change and that if you cannot beat them you join them!

The problem of poor performance is a big problem both at organisational and individual level.  On May 9, I noted a road repairs team on Wampewo Avenue at about 10.00 am repairing two potholes about 10 meters apart. Their truck was parked between the two potholes.  The supervisor and one man were sitting near the truck, chatting. 

On this occasion the supervisor was of Asian origin. Two people had been deployed at one pothole, one was standing idle and one appeared to be sweeping around the pothole.  Five people were deployed at the second pothole.

Two were seated on the road kerb, two were standing and chatting and only one person was working.  This company sent out a truck with nine people to do a job that, in another environment, could have been done by one person and completed within one hour.

I passed by at the end of the day and, as I expected, the work done was very shoddy.  This is not a one off occurrence but pretty much sums the state of our work ethics. 

Dr Ian Clarke has commented on the work ethics debate that all human beings are born lazy and that in the case of  Ugandans, people have lost hope in the system but otherwise can be as equally hardworking as any other nationality.  President Museveni, when opening the Acacia Mall in June 2014 said Ugandans are lazy by nature. 

Most notably, whenever there have been questions about the integrity of the people, the President has appointed to serve the nation, he has asked Ugandans again and again to show him where he is to find hardworking, incorruptible people.

Uganda needs the self-analysis and evaluation which the current debate has opened up. The situation may not be irredeemable as some people think.  The Institute of Work Culture and Ethics believes that no matter how grim the perception about work ethics in Uganda may appear, there are organisations and individuals who are doing their best and that we need to look for them, reward and recognise them and promote them as our role models. 

As Ugandans, we have written and spoken so much about what is going wrong; let us start looking for what is going well and we promote that too. The focus should not be on whether we are the laziest in East Africa or indeed the whole world; let us focus on our output. Let us bear in mind what the consequences would be if we do not do something now.

Our vision as a country is to be a middle income country by 2020.  Even though this is just three years away, this is feasible because of the law of averages.  To be a middle income country it needs an average income of $1,033 per person. We already have Ugandans with a net worth of over $50m and a few more on that list would lift the average income to $1,033. But is that the future we want for Uganda? Most people still live in abject poverty. We have many people who dress up each day to go to work but many of these fall in what is sometimes referred to as disguised unemployment.

Uganda’s population is one of the youngest in the world and it will continue to grow before it peaks. On the contrary, the numbers of jobs that are created annually are not many. The Government is the biggest employer and most jobs created by the Government are as a result of subdividing administrative units. Typical, administrative jobs do not directly add to the economy’s output. Although the expenditure by the administrators may fuel economic growth, it would require an efficient system to convert the demand the new employees into sustainable economic growth.

If we do not act now to reverse the tide, we are heading towards a cliff and we shall surely tip over.  How do we take action?  The current debate is a good starting point. Over the last couple of weeks, the public participated in the definition of an ethical work culture.

We now have a Ugandan grown definition: “A work environment where agreed standards and values are encouraged and are consistently exhibited by employees even when no one is watching”; it comes with a set of attributes that are expected in such an environment.

Let us take part in the ongoing nomination of organisations that exemplify ethical work culture as defined by the Ugandan public. Nominations are open at A panel of highly regarded judges will validate this information and winners will be recognised on Work Culture and Ethics Day on July 28, 2017. Through this campaign we are sensitising the public about what is expected and we are saying, yes – there are some Ugandan organisations that meet that bill.

Doing the right thing never guarantees that everyone will live happily ever after. If a job that is currently being done by five people because of our inefficiency can be done by one person, what will happen to the four people?  That is where the macro-planners should step up and do their work. 

We have a National Planning Authority that should be aware that over 60% of our people are under-employed. Most critical, however, let us not wait for someone to plan for us; let us take responsibility for planning for ourselves.  In so doing we shall lay the right foundation for ourselves and for the nation.

Let us get back to the basics; let us change our attitude towards work.  We shall enhance our productivity, become competitive and attractive to investors. We shall grow a stronger economy that will reward performance appropriately.

The write is the Executive Director of the Institute of Work Culture and Ethics Ltd. aka the Transformation Baraza located near in Luwero District near Semuto Town.

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