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Do we have creative thinkers?

Ramathan Ggoobi

Do we have creative thinkers?

It is in Uganda where fuel tankers, are allowed to pass through the central business district of the city at midday! Authorities feel Dr. Besigye is more dangerous than those heavy trucks!

A fortnight ago, I penned a piece that attempted to explain why our leaders and policy makers were not thinking like economists while crafting the policies that they wanted to transform our economy.

I used the example of the new buzz in town — “mobilization of peasants to engage in commercial farming” — to show how some of our good policies tend to be informed more by politics, commonsense, and ego (ideology or vision) than economics. As a result they fail to achieve the goal of their authors. If you missed it, please look it out.

Today, I want to cite more examples that perhaps we have been taking for granted but might be having a lot to tell why this country is in the state where it has found itself today. I will use our day-to-day encounters to elaborate my points.

The first example I want us to look at is what goes on our roads. Many will agree that the way most drivers and other road users behave in Uganda borders carnage. In Kampala city, the traffic jams and chaos have reached unbearable levels. Some people may want to think that this is a result of the large number of vehicles Ugandans have acquired. Other would blame the jams on the poor and narrow roads that Uganda has.

Although these factors may be contributing to the traffic congestions, I think the key contributory factor to our traffic nightmare is our irrational decision to allow all and any automobiles on the road, no matter their mechanical condition.

Our leaders (the city managers, policymakers and other decision makers); why do you think it is okay, or even “fair”, to have vehicles of all sorts of make, model, design, shape, size, and mechanical condition on the roads at any time of the working day?

Very old cars

It is in Uganda where traffic police and other authorities are more interested in guiding a dilapidated car, which has broken down in the middle of Kampala road, to maneuver over a pavement and create space for the VIP convoy to pass, instead of arresting its driver to save him from that ‘moving coffin’!

It is in Uganda where heavy trucks carrying tons of bulky merchandise and fuel tankers full of inflammable oil products, are allowed to drive through the central business district of Kampala at midday! Authorities feel that Dr. Kizza Besigye is more dangerous than those heavy trucks and fuel tankers!

Secondly, why does police leadership think it is more logical to manage traffic on the busy Kampala roads by having their white-clad traffic officers rely on their personal judgment to direct the traffic flow, instead of using traffic lights? Of course they will want to tell me that people abuse the lights, and that police comes in during the rush-hours to avoid traffic hold-ups. This answer may only be convincing for someone who uses commonsense instead of economics to analyse issues.

Why don’t we hire experts (and pay them once) to help us program the lights to handle traffic according to such considerations? Then install CCTV cameras at the road junctions to catch drivers who abuse them. I will never understand why that guy or lady in white waves me down when the lights are showing green, and then he/she allows me to go when the light turns red, perhaps 10 or more minutes later, and in most cases only after realizing that traffic in the direction where I am going is immobile. This is clear evidence that in the bid to reduce automated errors, the traffic police have created much more discretionary human errors.

There is even a bit of economics to the indiscipline that Ugandan drivers exhibit while on the road. When you are driving on a crowded road, it always seems that some other lane is going faster than yours; the obvious strategy is to switch to the faster lane. If you actually try to follow such a strategy, however, you discover to your amazement that a few minutes after you switch lanes, the battered blue pickup that was behind you in the lane you left is now in front of you.

To understand why it is so difficult to follow a successful strategy of lane changing, it important to consider that by moving into a lane you slow it down. If there is a faster lane then people will move into it, equalizing its speed with that of the other lanes, just as people moving into a short line lengthen it. So a lane remains fast only as long as drivers do not realize it is.

If you take keen interest in what is going on on our roads, you will realise that older/dented cars switch lanes more frequently than new cars. To put it more plainly, drivers of older/dented cars tend to be more reckless than those of new and/or expensive cars.

Why? Simple! For the marginal lane changer to take the risk to change the lane, the payoff must equal the cost. If the payoff was less than the cost (the case for the new car), the driver would not be a lane changer. If the payoff was more (the case for the old and dented car), the driver would change the lane.

In principle, if traffic police and other authorities knew this bit of behavioral economics, they wouldn’t allow very old cars on the road. It is not a simple case of being insensitive to the low income earners (who usually drive very old cars), rather it is a case of increasing X-efficiency on the roads to save the driver of those old cars from the unwarranted accidents, avoidable congestion, and the overall cost of transport on our roads.

Incentives for public transport

Dear our leaders please do Ugandans a favour by removing very old vehicles off the roads. Not every Ugandan is supposed to drive a car. Talking about every Ugandan driving a car reminds me of one of the possible solutions to traffic congestion in Kampala.

Everyday Kampala is becoming more congested with cars carrying a single person lining the roads in heavy traffic jams. Why don’t you leaders and planners think out some incentives to get us park our cars and use public transport?

Why, for example, don’t you introduce an efficient bus transport system managed (not the inefficiently run pioneer buses or Awakula Ennume) to replace the chaotic 14-seater taxis that are forcing Ugandans to own cars that they can hardly afford?

After introducing a well-managed bus public transport system, then KCCA (Kampala City Council Authority) or URA (Uganda Revenue Authority) may impose a levy (say of Shs. 20,000) on personal cars that enter the city. Every time a car enters the city centre the driver is charged Shs. 20,000. Some of us will be glad to park our cars outside the city centre, board a comfortable and safe bus, and enjoy the ride into the city.

This will not only reduce congestion in the city, it will also help Ugandans to save for their personal development. Today, many young people live lives that are beyond their means. Immediately after school, every young man’s and girl’s dream is to get a job that would give them access to a salary loan to buy a car. Reason? Matatus and boda-bodas are a nightmare to depend on as means of transport. The taxis are unregulated, in very poor mechanical and hygienic conditions, risky and unattractive.

How do we teach our children?

Another example we can look at, to know why Uganda needs more creative thinkers, lies in the education sector. Why do our universities, in this high-tech 21st century, hire professors and pay us every single semester to teach the same material over and over again? Isn’t that a waste of money?

What about paying us a good wage once, film the lecture and put it online for all the students that come in the subsequent semesters to watch it? The moral in this is having professors carry out value-adding research so that they can enrich their lecture material for the university to pay us and record more lectures with new knowledge.

This thinking may sound wild but it has practical evidence. At Harvard University, Prof. Eric Mazur, the head of physics, has developed a revolutionary teaching model named “Peer Instruction”. In this interactive learning model, the better students become the teachers and the poorer students the learners.

Mazur’s research found that students were better teachers of their peers, even in what we consider as technical subjects, such as physics. After all you learn to drive a car by sitting in a car, and you don’t mind how every single car part works.

Before Mazur developed this model, students at Harvard, just like elsewhere, used to study to pass an exam. But three days later, the information has left their brains again. So there was no learning in the traditional model (the one we still use here); only transfer of information. Today, with Mazur’s new teaching model, Harvard has reclaimed its position in innovations and technological inventions.

I know we are centuries behind Harvard standards but my view is that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be left behind in doing simple things that others are using to turn around their lives. Let’s employ more creative thinkers than hard workers!

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