Monday, April 11, 2016

Illiterate and cruel

Wallace Kantai tried to warn us that the Chase Bank debacle also affected the bank's employees. We did not listen. I doubt many of us would have. Few of us have an understanding of how a bank operates, especially in Kenya, and the relationships between a bank's principal shareholders, directors and employees. That, I believe, is to our greater loss. Our illiteracy engenders a Schadenfreude that is quite uncalled for.

I do not know how true this is, but a bank that has shown tremendous growth in the past decade and run by a superstar billionaire CEO has a very high turnover of staff. The CEO is known to fire summarily employees who defy him or who cause him even the slightest displeasure. Allegedly, he has fired female employees for wearing trousers to the office.

Another bank that was in the news in relation to a major financial scandal is notorious for low pay, poor working conditions, long working hours and the ever-present threat of dismissal at any sign of rebellion. If these two banks are representative of employee-employer relations, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that employees of Chase Bank, just as employees throughout Kenya, may have been innocent pawns in the problems bedevilling the bank.

What we have been unable to do, even in this Information Age, where digital tools of communication are increasingly within the reach of millions, is to educate ourselves on Kenya's labour market and labour conditions. Indeed, the education that we need most - financial education - is distinct by its absence in an ocean of financial data and information available online. We do not instinctively turn to the business pages when - if - we purchase newspapers, but more often than not to the political news and entertainment, including sports, pages. This illiteracy leads to cruel statements about the motives of Chase bank's employees.

Fred Matiang'i has launched an ambitious new programme to review the 8-4-4 curriculum. If the outcome is still an exam-focussed content-delivery system where rote memorisation is promoted at the expense of both knowledge-acquisition and skills development, then our financial illiteracy will persist. Policy-makers and public commentators must seize the moment and ask what we want from our education system and if, based on the reactions to the Dubai Bank, Imperial Bank and Chase Bank failures, our education system could deliver.

We can't compel people to educate themselves about financial affairs, but we can make it easier for them to understand phrases like "insider lending" and "non-performing loans" without having to rely only on newsreaders on TV. This means that how we educate our children must include how they see their world when they walk outside their classroom doors. When a child finishes Form 4, they must be able to understand their world in order to navigate it with a measure of maturity. From what has taken place at the University of Nairobi, we are no longer educating our children or young people; we are merely warehousing them for limited periods in the hopes that osmotic acquisition of knowledge will occur.

I am sorry that Chase Bank's employees will not receive a measure of sympathy from a largely financially illiterate population. If they ever get their jobs back, we will never know. If they fall into bankruptcy, we will never know. If they are ever forced to sell cars and houses, we will never know. If their children are forced to change schools, we will never know. If treatments for life-threatening ailments are postponed because of financial troubles, we won't know. We won't much of these and we probably won't care. That is what illiteracy does: it makes us unintentionally cruel because we don't know and we don't understand what we hear.

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