I have a brother who tries to keep me in touch with some of the ABC financial realities of running a business. He sent this financial proverb to me the other day:
- If somebody buys something for themselves with their own money, they will be mindful of both cost and quality.
- If they buy something for someone else with their own money, they will be mindful only of cost.
- If they buy something for themselves with other people’s money, they will be mindful only of quality.
- If they buy something for someone else with someone else’s money, they will be mindful of neither quality nor cost.
A one word summary: self-interest.
Yes we are moved by self-interest. This is the naked truth. We might not like to admit it, but we would be naïve to ignore it, or as the Bible says: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” [1 John 1:8].
Yet we are not only moved by self-interest. It is possible to be moved by the interest of our neighbour and ultimately the interest of the common good. To love our neighbour is to seek the best interest of the common good. If we love someone who we are buying something for, then quality matters. If we love the person whose money we are spending, then cost matters. And with just laws and just systems together with processes of accountability, this love may be expanded beyond the individual to protect society from being run by the lowest common denominator of self-interest.
Over the last few years we have witnessed how self-interest has stolen billions of Rands from budgets and funds and organisations and government entities that were meant to serve the common good. I find it impossible to get my head around some of the numbers. They are so big that they become a bit meaningless to me. I guess, billions baffles brains. For this reason a few figures quoted in a Daily Maverick article from Kyle Cowan’s book: Sabotage – Eskom Under Siege grabbed my attention:
“Chief Operating officer of Eskom, Jan Oberholzer uncovered a plethora of disgraceful lapses – including the basics, such as Eskom paying R54 for a single black bag, R22 for a roll of single-ply toilet paper and double that for a litre of milk.
‘I visited the distribution centre in King William’s Town, and the one guy there said to me, you people at head office don’t know what you are doing. He explained that if he wanted to buy coffee or milk, he had to get it delivered from Johannesburg, where he could buy it locally for half the price. And that’s when I realised there were middlemen everywhere making a fortune,’ Oberholzer said. In those early days, he made it a priority to start relinking procurement of such basic goods to power stations and offices, decentralising it all.
But contracts for milk and sugar, while emblematic of Eskom’s state, were not the biggest problems he would have to deal with.”
In other words they were paying R540 for 10 black bags, while we can buy 10 black bags for R34 at a local super-market. We would only do this if were not spending our own money and if you were reaping the benefits of a corrupt tender process.
The movement from self-interest to the interest of the common good is the continuous conversion that disciples of Jesus undergo. Over and over… surrendering and laying down our life for the good of our neighbour.