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16.03.2004 Feature Article

A stitch in time saves nine: Cultivating a maintenance culture in Ghana

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On February 26, 2004, a news item appeared on Ghanaweb about reconstruction works on a number of roads in the Central Business District (CBD). In that news item the Minister of Roads and Transport, Dr Richard Anane, was quoted as saying that “Ghana relatively had a strong infrastructure base with majority of the infrastructure especially the highway and road system located in Accra.” He added that the roads “have deteriorated over the years owing to the economic recession in the 1970s and 1980s” (Ghanaweb 26 February 2004). There are also a number of articles and letters deploring the state of disrepair of many facilities, plants and equipment (eg see Ghanaweb 6 January 2004). This brings to the fore the issue of maintenance of assets. While reflecting on this issue the news headline: “Health personnel attend maintenance course” (Ghanaweb 16 January 2004) caught my eye. The course, which sought to inculcate the maintenance culture in health personnel to prolong the lifespan of hospital facilities, had the theme “let us maintain our health facilities”. Let me commend the organisers of the course for this initiative and for the theme of the course. I hope such courses would be run from time to time for personnel in other sectors of the economy.

Development of infrastructure and efficient transportation and communication networks are indispensable for the promotion of the productive sectors of an economy and for social development. The various governments of Ghana have at one time or the other recognised the need to develop the infrastructure. In this respect governments of every ideological persuasion have embarked upon some expensive infrastructural developments: construction of new roads or schools or purchase of new equipment or plant. Under the current government, a number of new, roads are being built, equipment including computers and expensive gadgets have also been purchased or are being installed in various places in the country. Hospitals, rail lines and schools are reportedly being rehabilitated at considerable cost to individual communities or the central government. In some cases, these projects are financed with assistance from external sources in the form of loans, donations or partnership agreements. Every one of these new infrastructural developments will have a projected useful life span. Maintenance and preservation will help to extend this useful life. In the normal scheme of things many of the new roads built by the previous government or equipment purchased by them should still be within their life-span limit and projected useful life and able to be repaired. I understand this is not the case. We do not seem to get much use out of our buildings, roads, plants and equipments. They become unusable or fall into a state of disrepair within a few years of their construction or purchase. There are a number of factors contributing to this state of affairs. The Minister of Roads touched on only one of these but not the most important factors. One of these important factors is maintenance. The Minister did not indicate what programs he or his Ministry has put in place to ensure that such neglect do not occur again. In most cases our politicians seem to note past errors but they do nothing about correcting the errors or making sure it does not happen. In some cases they even repeat the error in another form and it is then up to the next politician to refer to it. My question to Dr Anane is what in built mechanism is there for maintaining the roads being rehabilitated? Without a program of maintenance built into these projects, these roads will suffer the same neglect that he referred to.

In my view the neglect of the maintenance of existing public assets is one of the major reasons for the poor quality of services. This is the cost we have to pay for years of neglect and we should learn that deterioration of infrastructure assets represents an enormous drain on national wealth particularly for a HIPC country. While this neglect may be due in some cases to poor logistics and resources (money), the main causes are: lack of, or little, built-in maintenance programs, no follow-up process after the project has been completed or after the installation of the equipment, the attitude of Ghanaians to “government property”, misuse or abuse, neglect, and in many cases poor quality material or workmanship and staffing or lack of adequate training of the staff in the use and handling of the tools and equipment. Underlying these is the endemic problem of corruption. I admire Ghanaians for their tolerance. Unfortunately, it has also meant a tolerance of corruption and of uncivil conduct in all sectors of the economy including maintenance of assets. We seem to rely on custom and tradition rather than laws and regulations as the guiding principles to our conduct. Some organisations have areas designated maintenance section but even here the maintenance infrastructure will be struggling to keep up with the needs. In some cases money earmarked for maintenance end up in the pockets of some officials or the cost of the maintenance project is inflated and part of the inflated price goes into someone's bank account with the result that the maintenance budget is used up on one small project. In other cases spare parts bought for the organisation are resold to other people or diverted to other uses.

To make it worse, maintenance and construction contracts are awarded without due diligence. Some of our roads deteriorate faster than normal due to errors in construction. Some of these errors could have been avoided but again the fact that it is not may in some cases be attributable to incompetence or corruption. The lack of accountability and transparency in all sectors of the economy raises the question why has the government despite its fanfare about “zero tolerance' not been able to reduce the level of corruption. I agree that individuals must make the effort but I will argue that what is required in all facets of the economic life of the country is good governance and leadership by example. Some of our leaders, even if they themselves are not involved in corruption, (from anecdotal evidence this would be an exception rather than the norm) are by their inaction giving tacit approval to the mismanagement and corruption that occur within their establishments.

Another factor militating against the cultivation of a maintenance culture is the tendency for using funds for new capital projects to the neglect of those already in existence. In most cases money is allocated for constructing for example a new road but little provision is made for the subsequent maintenance of that road when it is built. The priority appears to be to create new capital assets in some cases to score political points but not for operating them. What is the purpose of building say a school without making sure that it is able to function as a school i.e. the necessary inputs eg books, desks and teachers are available. To ensure that new assets created operate efficiently and cost effectively it is important in the planning stages to consider issues relating to maintenance, staffing, training on the use of equipment, the life span of the item, quality, availability of replacement parts and operating conditions eg does it suit a tropical condition or in the case of a road, will it allow for use of heavy haulage trucks above a certain weight.

The financial consequences of neglecting maintenance is often not only seen in terms of reduced asset life and premature replacement but also in increased operating cost and waste of related natural and financial resources eg if a scheduled maintenance detected a faulty water pump on my car, the cost in time and money of replacing that water pump at the scheduled maintenance time will be less than if there is a total breakdown caused by the same water pump. It is also a well-known fact that maintenance actions on eg cars not only make the engines more reliable delivering huge safety dividends but also providing cost savings in running cost. Yet most cars on the roads are poorly maintained with the result that a number of taxis and tro tros operating in the country are death traps on wheels. How many times have people not postponed scheduled maintenance on a car only to find it in the garage for days. A crack in a road could be filled quickly and effectively before it becomes a huge pothole, which drivers will try to avoid sometimes resulting in accidents. The human and the other costs that result from that accident far outweigh the cost of taking action on time to repair that crack.

In my view the other major cause of our maintenance problem is we are accepting any thing from anyone who wants to give us something. There used to be a saying that a 'beggar has no choice” but I have seen a number of beggars who might throw a donation back at you because it is insignificant so some beggars have choices. Many countries have standards for all manner of things, equipment, cars, clothes and medicines and would not allow the importation of items that do not meet the country's standard. For example the African snail is not allowed into Australia. Our exports have to meet certain standards or they are rejected yet we accept anything. Even where regulations and standards exist these are either not enforced or flouted with impunity. I am aware that one person's trash is another person's treasure but we need to carefully look at some of the imports into the country or before long the country will become a dumping ground for different kinds of unserviceable, outdated and in some cases literary useless equipment/plant. We will then be faced with the problem of disposing of these items putting pressure on our already scarce resources. In addition to this dumping of goods into the country may depress the local production of such goods. Ghanaians in the Diaspora have a part to play in this especially when making decisions to ship items to Ghana or soliciting for equipments/items to be sent to Ghana.

It is important for Ghanaians to cultivate a maintenance culture. We need to change our attitude to “government property”. Government and corporate property must be treated as if it were one's private property for it belongs to all the people and is held in trust by the government for all Ghanaians. Ministers and Parliamentarians and those in positions of authority should set the example. They should use “government property” lawfully, appropriately and efficiently.

Good management practices and planning will also remove some of the problems that affect maintenance. To increase the life span of plants and equipment we must ensure that specifications are correct and meet Ghanaian standards and not accept poor quality alternatives especially in the development and construction phases. Trained, efficient and incorruptible procurement officers have an important role to play here.

Effective and efficient maintenance must be adopted as a development priority and policy objective in its own right, at national and local levels. The cornerstone of this maintenance culture should be preventive maintenance, that is, systematic pre-scheduled activities aimed at the early detection of defects and implementation of actions to avoid or minimise breakdowns. Often the cost of many preventive maintenance activities is low relative to corrective maintenance or rehabilitation.

Sufficient public funds must be allocated to the maintenance of plants. Resource constraints are a fact of economic life. No country/organisation has unlimited resources so we need to prioritise. The resource issue is worse in the case of Ghana because of our under collection of revenue and leakages in customs duties, airport taxes, entry fees, water and electricity charges and registration fees just to mention a few. Added to these leakages, are various reports of people pillaging the nations resources for themselves. When found out nothing appears to happen to them. In some cases they are moved to another area where they can continue with their activities.

The next issue that needs to be taken care of is training. Staff must be provided with adequate training on the use of any equipment. In my experience some purchase agreements for equipment provide for training at the cost of the manufacturer. It is important that we make use of such options where available. If we opt for these we need to ensure that the people sent on such training courses especially where it involves travelling overseas are the people who will use the equipment or in a position to train others in the use of the equipment and not necessarily the Principal Secretary or Managing Director of the organisation.

I agree with Thompson, Isaac Nii-Moi when he writes: “the whole framework for national development will have to change. We will have to look beyond economic factors and seriously consider non-economic factors of our economic problems. These non-economic factors may yet hold the key to that “development” that has eluded us for so long – way too long, for a country that only half a century ago showed so much promise” (Ghanaweb Feature Article of Monday, 08 March 2004 Why We Remain Poor). I think it is about time we looked again at the “Clarion Call” made by the late Nkrumah at the time of Ghana becoming a Republic. If my memory serves me right it read something like this:

All things unclean, all things dishonourable, all things that enslave the personality of the individual must be buried with the old Constitution. A new Ghana should start a new life, a life that is hopeful, a life that ensures peace and progress in all aspects of human endeavour. A life that can truly hold aloft the touch of Africa's emancipation. … With this rededication let hope that gaiety, which marks our jubilations today, shall attend our forward march throughout the years ahead.

We need to reflect on these words for in my opinion they are powerful statements, which if every individual were to think through and adopt might help bring about the change, Nii-Moi talks about. It can be done and others like Bostwana and Singapore have done it. A journey of a thousand mile begins with the first step, so says the old adage, so let us take the first step by changing our attitude to “government property”, replace “the old constitution” in the clarion call “with my old self and A new Ghana with The new ME. We must also think of proper maintenance of our own private property with the view to prolonging their use for as they say if you cannot look after yourself how do you expect to look after others. In conclusion, it is important to remember another old adage “A stitch in time saves nine”. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Ebenezer Banful
Ebenezer Banful, © 2004

The author has 21 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: EbenezerBanful

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

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