Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Inequality & Poverty in Ghana: a reflection on the “Switzerland of Africa”

We all make sweeping generalisations every day in what is a perfectly normal and rational method of attempting to make sense of the world around us with all its complexities, intricacies, and nuances. However, extrapolating from such generalisations in an effort to formulate specific opinions, or inform individual decisions, can result in disastrous consequences. Often, at the root of the most dangerous of generalisations, lies a “single narrative” that is used to whitewash certain issues which, in fact, deserve much more detailed consideration.

The global image of the United Kingdom is a good example of how a single narrative can cloud people’s perception. In this case, people are often so heavily influenced by the London-and-the-South-East-centric image of Britain, as portrayed to the outside world, that they have hardly any appreciation of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland’s unique histories or contemporary constitutional statuses. Moreover, they tend to lack any understanding whatsoever of the regional cultural identities and linguistic quirks which exist in areas such as Cornwall, Yorkshire, and the North East, and are conceptually devoid of the economic and cultural North-South divide which rips England in two.

Just as most countries suffer from single-narrative generalisations which distort the reality, Ghana is no exception.  Despite decades of coup d’état sending government after government toppling like dominoes, Ghana is now often referred to as the “Switzerland of Africa”, due to the high levels of political stability and the strength of democracy, which have developed since the last coup in 1982. In fact, rather than a false generalisation, this is one narrative which does deserve credence, almost without qualification. Indeed, Ghana is a very stable, peaceful country, where the government is accountable to the people at the ballot-box and where the military is subject to firm civilian control. Moreover, fighting between ethnic or religious factions is essentially unheard of, although the same cannot be said for some of its neighbouring countries, such as Nigeria, which faces an insidious insurgency by Islamist rebels, Boko Haram.

In fact, the manner in which Christians and Muslims live together side-by-side in Ghana, bound together by mutual respect and a brotherly commitment to the community as a whole, is truly remarkable and should be held up as an example to countries such as the UK, where ignorance and fear all too often poison relations between persons of different faith.

However, the “Switzerland of Africa” label is an unhelpful one if it conjures an image of Ghana as an idyllic land of economic prosperity, devoid of major social issues. That is not to undermine the very real progress that has been achieved in Ghana in recent years, or an attempt to portray the country as backwards. On the contrary, development is advancing at great pace as demonstrated by the reams of data which are often pointed to as indicative of Ghana’s arrival, or imminent arrival, as a “developed” country.

For example, the percentage of people living below the national poverty line has fallen from 39.5% in 1998, to 28.5% in 2006, and access to improved water sources in rural areas has increased from 73% in 2007 to 80% in 2011. These positive figures are supported by statistics which show that Gross National Income per capita has risen rapidly and consistently from $280 in 2002, to $1550 in 2012, and school enrolment rates now close to 100%, at least in theory.

Nevertheless, whilst these statistics should be celebrated, it is here that one must be wary of the pitfalls of the single narrative. Just like in the UK, Ghana possesses a very perceivable North-South divide, which bisects the country into two very distinct economic and cultural spheres, and it’s important to ask, who exactly is benefiting from Ghana’s development. It’s not cynical to query how these impressive statistics match up to conditions on the ground, it’s a legitimate question. Certainly, upon closer inspection, it would seem that booming development in the South of the country, driven by the economic power of the capital city, Accra, is creating a false impression of Ghana as a whole, compensating for, and obscuring, the low levels of development in the Northern Regions.

This not only raises the issue of what life is like for people who are not benefiting from Ghana’s development, but also highlights the growing problem of inequality in the country, which, if left unchecked, could threaten to disrupt the peaceful fabric of Ghanaian society in the future, if extremists are able to tap into local grievances to support their own political agendas.

Statistics we don’t often hear quoted alongside Ghana’s impressive growth figures include the fact that in a country of twenty-four million people, seventeen million people own a total of twenty-seven million mobile phones, meaning that while seven million people do not have the luxury of a mobile phone, the rest of the population owns, on average, 1.6 devices. Of course, most people will only own one phone, which means there is a large wealthy élite who can afford to own two or three handsets; a very perceivable phenomenon that has really struck me since I arrived in Ghana.

Furthermore, not only does the North of Ghana lag behind the South, but women and disabled people appear to be particularly vulnerable to Ghana’s uneven development pattern. Two-thirds of all children who are denied an education are girls, with the result that only 60% of women in Northern Ghana have ever attended school, and only 25% are literate. In addition, female genital mutilation is still a shockingly common practice which poses a pervasive threat to the female generation of the future if the issue is not tackled. There is also an inextricable link between poverty and disability, with malnutrition and disease contributing to the fact that 80% of disabled people world-wide live in developing countries.

Naturally, the success that people have achieved is to be applauded, but the fact that such success is only really affecting certain sections of society must be acknowledged and more work done to widen the scope of development, and allow Ghana’s wealth to positively affect the whole nation, not just a certain geographic region, or social strata. Already, in the short time I have been here, I have seen that fantastic efforts are being made to work towards these goals, in particular the empowerment of women, and the integration of people with disabilities into mainstream community life. Progress is slow, but it is steady, and it is important that we redouble our efforts to support the process of development in the Upper East, rather than become complacent or get seduced by a misleading single narrative emanating from Accra.

By Oliver Ayambiik Buxton

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