Tuesday, 29 September 2009

How much does it cost to print a 15 page report?

“Nigeria presents a unique development challenge. Its striking income disparity – so much poverty in the midst of so much wealth – is difficult to comprehend and must inform any attempt to alleviate poverty.”

This sentence comes from the introduction to Fantsuam’s strategic plan, a document which is currently under review as part of the organisational development process we are undertaking.

Today I unexpectedly came face to face with that disparity although having said that, the fact that I was in Abuja should have given me a clue as to what to expect.

The Nigerian Communications Commission’s Universal Service Provision Fund which is supporting our Community Communications Centre has requested a (printed, bound including colour pictures) progress update by today. The last two days have been the Sallah holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan. Getting printing done in Kafanchan at the best of times can be a challenge so I took the decision to take the electronic copy of the document down to Abuja and get it printed and bound near to the NCC.

Friends familiar with Abuja directed me to a cyber cafe inside a petrol station next door to the NCC. Unfortunately they couldn’t do the whole job so directed me to a smart but small business services centre about 100m up the road in Gana Street – adjacent to the very wonderful Schwarma King restaurant.

As I walked inside I was anticipating the delicious chicken schwarma that I would treat myself to when the job was done. I was courteously welcomed by uniformed staff, and I enquired if they could do colour printing and binding and was assured in the very best London accent (Ada from Willesden Green I subsequently learned) that it was possible. A price list was displayed but I didn’t tot it up immediately. I mean – how bad could it be?

Well 20 minutes later with a neatly bound document containing 6 colour pages and 9 black and white pages (i.e. 15 sheets of paper printed one side only), I found out: N2,710. That is about £12 or more than half of what one of the two Pink House security guards (working continuous 12 hour shifts) earns in a month. I was actually in shock: similar to when a hairdresser in New York told me the nice haircut and highlights I had just received cost $120 (this was two weeks after I’d given up my job and decided to go to business school).

My utter disbelief caught the attention of Ada who explained that that was what you paid to get a job done properly -and remember – everything came straight off a clearly displayed price list – no bature prices here.. And she was right: the air-conditioned Maitama Biz Centre had continuous power supply and good quality equipment fully charged with toner (a week previously a colleague had had to visit three business centres in state capital Kaduna to find one that actually had toner in the colour printer). All the staff were polite, knowledgeable and well trained and, whilst I struggled with how I was going to explain the cost to Fantsuam’s CCC project manager (in the end I decided that I was too embarrassed to attempt claiming the full amount) I could understand Ada’s point of view.

But this is where the contrast is really clear: let’s say the worst paid security guard in a quiet rural backwater of the UK is earning... £10,000 a year (£850 a month)? Imagine paying £500 for one 15 page, desk-top printed and plastic comb-bound document.

Forget ‘London weighting’ and the difference between a pint of beer in Bolton compared to Berkeley Square, this is real income disparity.

I’m also convinced that it is this that is behind Nigeria’s reputation for corruption: put yourself in the position of a middle manager civil servant struggling to raise a family and home on – say N15,000 (£50) a month. Someone comes along and offers you 10 or 100 times that much to put a contract in their hands. Suddenly you go from a position where a car could only be a pipe-dream to where it might be a reality. The implications are life-changing.

Of course for every life-changing bribe that is accepted, there are hundreds which are merely giving in to greed. But if everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t you? Think of it as English people’s attitude to water preservation before water meters were put in. You could save water but it didn’t cost you less and any way everyone else was not saving water so why should you?

I think this will ring some bells with anyone who kept abreast of the MPs' expenses scandal in the UK parliament this year..

A colleague who had worked in East Africa commented that corruption is rife across the continent – it’s just made a lot more obvious in Nigeria. Nigeria’s reputation for corruption is infamous but it’s not a country of dishonest people. Quite the opposite.

Solving the corruption problem will be very difficult unless the disparity is reduced. Whilst there are people who take six months or more to earn what someone else would pay for a small round of drinks in a smart bar, money will always be more powerful than anything else and with that will come corruption.