How Lateness is Making US Even Poorer

Sun, 20 Feb 2011 Source: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi

Punctuality or the lack of it is a national joke in this country; we all have loud ha ha moments when we recount our personal experiences of “African punctuality”, which is a glorified name for a very rude and unproductive national disgrace. Indeed, we have come to tolerate and even accept lateness as a national cultural attribute to the point that we tend to laugh at those who keep time as if they were some otherworldly geeks unfamiliar with our realities.

I can state as a fact that in the last seven years not a single public or private event that I have attended has started on time, and some have started as late as five hours behind schedule. The amazing thing is that it doesn’t appear to bother most people. Indeed, it appears that there is a whole protocol around lateness which roughly works like this: the more important a person is, or thinks he or she is, the “more late” the person is deemed to have the right to be to functions. A system of myths and assumptions have grown around lateness and we even have favourite lateness tales, as if this is something to be proud instead of a giving all of us a sickening culture cringe.

My favourite lateness tale has to be the time when I attended a Ghanaian funeral in London, where such funerals are held at night because the natives don’t give too much of their working time to the dead. The invitation asked me to arrive at 6.30pm, so at exactly 6.30pm I arrived at Streatham Town Hall for the funeral. There was not a soul stirring within a hundred yards of the venue. I slipped a condolence card under the door and left because not even the bereaved/organiser had arrived at their appointed time. Three hours later I received a call from one of the organisers who was angry that I had behaved according to the time on the card: “Kwasi, you should know that for Ghanaians the time advertised is not meant to be taken seriously. Six o’clock means eight at the earliest”.

The only surprise about the above story is that it happened in London where most things run on time, but it shows that this permanent disregard for punctuality is not a Ghana thing but a Ghanaian malaise. We can afford to make jokes with it and refer to Greenwich Mean Time, GMT, as Ghana Man’s Time, but we would stop laughing if we stopped to consider the serious implications of our tardiness. We would then realise that this could be one of the reasons why, despite our best efforts, we are going backwards on the route to development, or merely standing still, at best.

The worst part of our national predilection for lateness is that it appears to have become the official and preferred way of doing business, especially for government officials and people operating at the highest echelons of the state. Here and there you find the odd public official arriving early or on time for an event but that is the exception. The rule is almost always for the highest official attending a function to arrive late, not because the high personage wants to do so but because it has become a protocol requirement to keep the person away until all others are seated.

It is possible that a security issue may be involved here, but that would be scant reason for keeping everyone waiting for long periods. Whatever the case may be, this has meant that everyone else arrives late knowing that the event would not start on time. This ridiculous circuitous reasoning can sometimes be carried to absurd limits. Public events sometimes start late because the high government official has not arrived while he or she is being kept somewhere very close to the event venue for reasons that are not clear. For example, if the President is expected at a function outside the capital, he would typically go to the local Residency, which is the grand name for where regional and district political heads reside. The masses of the people, anxious to see the President would arrive early at the venue to secure their seats, often in the scotching sun, while the chiefs assemble in heavily embroidered wear of one kind or another. The President is kept away while local party and state chieftains stoke their own egos in the reflected glory of the presidential presence.

It appears that events organisers in both the private and public sectors have to accept the blame for unrealistic or ineffective planning. There was a recent event at which the Vice President was expected to “grace the occasion”, which was billed to start at 5.30 in the evening. This meant that most of those attending would go straight from work, and that could include the Vice President, unless he had been given a different starting time that would allow him to go home and smart up a bit as befits his high office. In the circumstances, and for whatever reason, the meeting had not started two hours after the first and punctual people arrived at the venue.

There was no apology and no reason; people just sat and fumed, while smartly dressed ushers assured restive ones that the event would “soon start”. It was obvious the ushers were as much in the dark as the rest of the audience. Meanwhile there were loud murmurings that the people were kept waiting because the Vice President was late. Hundreds of people going straight from work and facing tortuous journeys home in the unfriendly Accra traffic had to waste time doing nothing for nearly three hours because the organisers of the events had got their time planning at sixes and sevens.

Such lack of good planning is not merely irritating and unfair but also costs money – lots of money. Imagine the amount of money in productivity and man-hours that are lost when you have hundreds and thousands of people doing nothing. Even by our rather low levels of productivity, this is still a major drain on the economy. I do not think that any Ghanaian institution has done the analysis is but in some countries where such things matter they have tried to do the sums. In the UK, HISCOX, a work consultancy has done a survey which revealed that workers arriving late to work cost the nation 66 million pounds every year. This waste comes from workers arriving late to work, not those absenting themselves, or as in our case, arriving late to an event and doing nothing.

In the US, it is estimated that lateness costs businesses more than three billion dollars ($3bn) every year, and the CBS Interactive Business Network, which carried the information explained that an employee who is late 10 minutes each day, has by the end of the year, taken the equivalent of a week’s pay without doing any work. In Ghana, ten minutes late would be regarded as being very early to work. Perhaps, the government of Ghana should commission a similar study into the effect of lateness on our economy.

Or, maybe, we don’t need a study because the evidence of waste due to lateness is stupendously overwhelming. What we need to study is how to break this prohibitive habit which must be one of the single biggest contributors to our poverty. Think about it this way: we are in a competitive world in which whatever we produce or do can be done better or cheaper somewhere unless we strive to maintain whatever advantages we may have. One of the key components of that advantage would be the cost of labour. Unfortunately mass lateness meant that labour costs are very high because we are paying people to do very little. This drives up the overall cost of doing business in the country, and that keeps jobs away and leads to even more unemployment.

The first thing we need to do is to recognise that, like malaria or HIV-AIDS, lateness is a disease that we have to cure. It has to become a thing of shame and not an attribute of the big man syndrome that is already killing the country. Being lateness must be seen, not as a status symbol but as social and economic malaise that should attract sanction and disgrace. That is not the situation at the moment. Now, at church, weddings, public lectures, political rallies and cultural events, the best dressed people who occupy the choicest seats arrive late.

Personally, I am perhaps as culpable as the next Ghanaian, but being aware of this unsociable behaviour I try to mend my ways whenever possible by arriving no more than 30 minutes after the advertised time; most of the time the organisers would not have arrived themselves. It is for that reason that I decline invitations to many things because the anxiety of waiting, the loss of precious time, the indignity and mental anguish of doing nothing are things I can do without. And whenever possible, I don’t want to be part of causing financial loss to the state for which important people have been called to account.


Columnist: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi