Elizabeth Ohene writes… Choice between me and us

Elizabeth Ohene, Author

When your personal interest happens to coincide with the general interests of the community, it is very easy to do the right thing.

Most things we do in this life involve making a choice between personal interest and the common good.

When there are more people in the society opting for the personal interest rather than the common good, then that society is in trouble.

We have all heard the arguments that are made to justify the galamsey practice.

It is a source of livelihood for many of the young people and that is what makes the difference between poverty and getting on in life.

One notorious former DCE put it quite elegantly: galamsey transforms our villages from thatch roof mud houses to storey houses and grand mansions. (Private interest of the house owners and common good of the villagers who acquire bragging rights that their village now has beautiful houses).

Galamsey also happens to pollute water bodies and rivers on which whole communities depend. Galamsey also happens to leave the land poisoned and unusable for generations.

When the water company has to spend ten times more money to purify the water before it is safe for use, our private interests get dangerously mixed up with the public good.

There will never be enough money made for galamsey to cover the cost of providing safe water to the whole community when the water body and the rivers have been destroyed.

When someone does all his shopping while seated in his car in the traffic, he might save himself a trip to the shopping mall or to the market, but he is contributing to the congestion and filth of the city.

When a trader sets up her stall on the pavement, she is taking a decision to promote her personal interest. She is not concerned about the congestion she causes or the inconvenience she causes pedestrians. It might be because she cannot find any space inside the market but more likely that she simply prefers to sell on the pavement.  There are many markets in Accra that are empty because traders prefer to sell on the pavements.

If a customs official is able to purchase a house with $350,000 cash in a briefcase, he has been taking a series of decisions based on personal interest and not the public good.

When the same person joins in complaining about the state of the road leading to his gated community, it might be a good idea to remind him that roads can only be built with money gathered from public interest decisions.

When our streets are clear and clean, we have a display of common interest, but to keep them clear and clean, we have to agree to protect the common interest and it might be at the cost of some personal interests.

If Vice-President Mahamudu Bawumia has his way, and we become truly digitised, a lot of things might start happening in the public interest and not for private or specialist group interests.

For example, the use of online application for jobs is not popular with members of the two major political parties.

It is very difficult, or near impossible to give favours to political party members when the applications are online. You can hardly have a column that says NPP foot soldier on the excel sheet after credit in English and Maths.

But then it might not be popular with them today, I suspect the same NPP people who today resent not getting favours because of online applications, would be quietly grateful one day if they get job and loan applications through during an NDC administration because the computer is political colour blind.

Easy to forget pain

My dear mother used to say it is for a good reason that nature makes us forget. She used to say it is only because human beings forget that any woman has more than one child. If the pain of childbirth stayed with a mother, she would not attempt to have a second child.

A year ago, when an unknown virus was first making its way around the world, attitudes were so different.

When doctors and medical personnel were frantic that there were no Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) in our hospitals and clinics, the cry was for the officials to get the equipment and get it as fast as possible.

When mortuaries and hospitals were full and cemeteries unable to cope with the dead bodies in some parts of the world, the cry in this country was for the authorities to get ventilators and get them as as fast as possible. Nobody said anything about prices.

When everybody wanted the markets and schools and all public places to be fumigated, the only question being asked then was how fast can it be done? No one asked how much it cost.

When the schools were to open for the final year students to take their exams, the cry was to get masks and Veronica Buckets and whatever it takes to make the reopening possible. I did not hear anyone mention money.

When a lockdown was imposed and the most unlikely people suddenly ran out of food, the cry was find them food and find it as soon as possible. Nobody mentioned cost or where the money was to come from.

When lockdowns around the world brought all economies to a thundering halt, we heard things we never dreamt we would ever hear. There was the German Finance Minister saying nobody should talk to him about the dangers of deficit financing. That surely is the equivalent of the Pope saying he does not believe in Jesus Christ. But all the known and sacred orthodoxies were thrown overboard and for good reason.

Today I hear someone questioning the procurement process for getting PPE for medical personnel. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet seen the back of the pandemic, so one can’t really begin to argue.

It is enough to say that one of the lessons we ought to learn from the pandemic is that our procurement processes and laws should be reviewed. Even at the best of times, they are too cumbersome.

As my friend mine puts it, they were drafted with the wrong intent and not meant to foster efficiency. They were certainly never meant to be used in an emergency like a pandemic.

And I can say that someone complaining about not going through the proper process is like a woman going for a second child, forgetting about the experience of the first time around.

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