Defining Progress

May 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

What is progress? How does one measure progress? Before I came back to Ghana, a handful of friends (i.e. educated and supposedly worldly and well-informed friends) encouraged me to hold my judgment until I got here. Ghana had changed, they said. There’s been so much growth since I last left these shores. I would be completely lost because most of Accra, with Ghana not pacing far behind, has grown a lot.

Well… so where’s this growth? I know my way around; that part is easy. Initially, I let the sight of a few new buildings give me the impression that all the landmarks of my childhood were gone. But that’s just a few buildings. So where’s the growth? Where’s the progress these few friends wanted me to see? Is it the cluster of new buildings that stretch between the “Accra Mall” and the former Sankara Circle bisecting Ring Road? Is it the new defense building someone once pointed out to me (no doubt, a costly and needless monstrosity for a country with the smallest military per population in the world)? Is it the many hotels popping up faster than they could draw up business models to see if those very businesses were even sustainable? Is it the fact that we have a larger and more diverse international population living here? I know I sound a bit facetious- and I probably am, but honestly, where’s the progress? What do you all seem to see that I can’t see?

I’ll tell you what I see and what I knew 16 years ago when I left. I’m going to stick with Accra for now.

I could go from Exhibition, Dansoman to Circle in 40 minutes with traffic and normal stops on any given day. I can’t say the same for today. With the right times and a little luck, I can get to Circle in half the time, and this happened more often than not. The same road ways remain besides the interchange where Sankara used to be. There are new communities for the new rich and regular people. There were wealthy people here 16 years ago, but we didn’t need gated communities back then, so why now? The biggest part of our economy is still cocoa, gold, port fees, and corruption. I read about a so-called investigative journalist who broke news about corruption at Tema. Really? That’s news? Everyone and their mother knows there’s corruption at the ports, and I knew this when I was a kid! Yesterday, you bought ice water at Circle because you didn’t have ready access to water; today you buy “pure water” because it’s the only thing there is. I lived on tap water when I was a kid. We used to joke about how water from Ghana was better than the tap in New Jersey when I first moved abroad. Now, that joke is just a cruel irony.

Ghana doesn’t have a single waste treatment facility. None! I dare you to name one. Where do you think all our waste goes? From the fancy hotels to the barely completed homes dotting the landscape across Greater Accra- everything eventually goes into that ocean (often near La), which is why I advised don’t go in that water. There is a cholera outbreak and you still find many homes using the bushes and gutters as their personal latrine. Malaria is still a big issue even if some would write to decry misinformation from foreigners about the rates in Ghana. For those who don’t have cars, tro-tro is still the main mode of transportation. They don’t pack ’em like they use to, but they’re the same rinky-dink vans that existed back in the ’90s.

We still borrow heavily from foreign agents to supposedly run our governments. The old loan sharks like the IMF and World Bank remain, but today we have the Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and even Brazilians to add to the mix. Even on borrowing, we’ve diversified and truly gone global- now that’s progress! Ok, I kid. So where’s this money going?  It takes me 2 hours to get from my home to Ring road- 2 HOURS! The government still holds a monopoly in cocoa. Shouldn’t a government diversify the means with which it creates income? Do you know how much of the working population that should pay taxes pay their fair share? We even imports most of the (subsidized) foods we can produce locally undercutting components of the economy we claim to be building. What are we saying about ourselves when we tell ourselves that without a stranglehold on cocoa exports, our government cannot fund itself? Should I look forward to my kids living or visiting a Ghana in 15 years which relies on agriculture as the biggest component of its economy? We are awash in riches of natural resources: gold, bauxite, diamonds, manganese, many others, and now oil. How much do we really get from all these? Akosombo dam was built to power VALCO. Whatever happened to VALCO? We may export gold and all these other minerals and soft commodities, but how much do we really earn from these? I’ll tell you how much: LESS THAN 10%!  When you complain about government, you’re dismissed as a know-it-all.

A few days ago I found myself in a tro-tro at the Madina station waiting for it to fill up on my way to Adenta. The customary hawkers did their circling bit, and I was left wandering about Ghana through these people. Someone once told me that even though most of these people don’t have the social mobility some of us have, somehow it builds character to ply your wares on these dangerous multi-lane highways. She actually seemed settled on the sense that this is Ghana and there’s not much we can do about it. We’ll never see what oil can do for our economy because it’s all been leveraged against loan guarantees for- and this a really good one: housing! We need roads, schools, hospitals, fire stations, modernized water treatment facilities, waste treatment facilities, large and well-managed infrastructure projects that employ hundreds of thousands; clean and renewable energy sources that build and protect our economy from external petroleum prices, and a dedicated program that taps our human resources to industrialize this country since we don’t locally manufacture 99% of the products we use. Yet some very, very smart MPs and government officials saw it wisest for Ghana’s economy to spend billions of dollars on 200,000 houses? Is this the progress I was told I would see? We declared ourselves a middle-income nation after some fancy accounting a few months ago, and somehow that meant we were all on the up-swing. What most don’t realize is that it also meant all these incompetent leaders (yes, I’m not impressed by any of them) get to hop the globe in search for more loan guarantees for projects they’ll never finish; with money that will be kicked back to cronies and unscrupulous foreign companies; hedged against a falling currency and natural resources we have yet to mine; and all for you, me, and those hawkers who carry their wares in the blazing heat throughout each day for less than 1ghc a day.

I finally understand why some of our brightest choose not to return home. There’s only so much you can do when you’re facing a skeptical populous, a corrupt and inept government, and an economic system that is very hard to navigate when you’re trying to add your bit to make this country better. So is that the progress we’ve made these last 15 years?


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