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Saturday, December 17, 2016

What does your money mean?

Before signing up as an ICS Team Leader, I worked for two years in London. Moving from one of the world’s biggest financial centres to Sandema, a small town in rural Ghana, was a striking transition. It has led me to reconsider the nature of money: what it means, how it influences culture, and the difficulty of redistributing it from rich to poor in a sustainable way.

When I first arrived in Ghana, I was surprised by how much of the Upper East region is commercially undeveloped. Although many people are involved in retail, they run their businesses out of one-room premises or they sell their products along the roadside or at the open-air market. Certain products, such as particular foods or good quality electronics, are all but unobtainable in Sandema. Even in the cities, the range of products available is tiny compared to what we have in the UK. This contrast made me realise a salient difference between destitution in developed and developing countries. In the UK, being poor means being surrounded by products you can’t afford to buy; in Ghana, it means not having access to many products and services, even if you had the money to buy them.

A shop within the marketplace area in Sandema
The contrast between the UK’s enormous retail sector and Ghana’s system, dominated by petty trading, gives rise to cultural differences. Most Ghanaians I’ve met are careful with their money, buying things when they need them, rather than on impulse. The average Sandema resident spends most of their day at home, at work, or at church or mosque, whereas in the UK, people are more commonly ‘out and about’ shopping, pursuing hobbies, and eating – all of which cost considerable sums of money. Ghanaian people tend to be more family-orientated than British people, too. One of my colleagues at Presbyterian Community Based Rehabilitation (PCBR), David Achuroa, told me that your perceived status and income potential in this part of Ghana is linked to the number of children you have – the more the better! In the UK, the opposite is true: people tend to associate having a large family with being from a low-income household.

A subtler cultural difference, but one I’m convinced is linked to Ghana’s less consumerist way of life, is the noticeable lack of mirrors. In the UK, we’re surrounded by mirrors in our own homes, as well as shiny shop fronts and office blocks when we go out. Consumerism is both a cause and a consequence of this endless self-scrutiny which makes it easy for advertisers to convince you you’re missing something: the latest season’s dress perhaps, a designer handbag, or a new mobile phone. In Sandema, people like to look smart – in particular, Ghanaians love to wear bright, flamboyant clothing – but they do not spend much time thinking about how to enhance their own reflections. Products are rarely purchased for the status they confer on the owner.

Putting the merits and pitfalls of consumerism aside, the question remains of how to help people in developing countries who are living in absolute poverty: that is, without enough nutritious food to eat or with poor access to healthcare and education. My time in Ghana has taught me just how challenging it can be to permanently redress socioeconomic inequalities. Our project partner, PCBR, helps people with disabilities (PWDs) to increase their incomes through livelihood projects such as providing PWDs with land and animals so they can support themselves through farming. These fantastic projects can help PWDs to break out of poverty, but the schemes have to be carefully monitored because participants don’t always know how to best use these resources to maximise long-term benefit.

Azunga Prince Kwesi (PCBR Field Officer) and Patrick Atinboa, who is visually impaired, at a livelihood project
For the Western World to ignore the plight of the world’s poorest would be immoral but ensuring that international development funds are spent fruitfully, to sustainably empower people living in poverty, is no mean feat. My six months in Sandema have left me with troubling questions about my own place in the world as a white Western woman and how I can best support the efforts of organisations which are trying to level the playing field. How can I contribute given that my future earnings will only be a miniscule fraction of the $66 billion (£43 billion) needed to eradicate extreme poverty globally per year? How much impact can non-governmental organisations (NGOs) really have when corrupt and incompetent governments are the root of poverty in many parts of the world? 

What I do know is that I’ve had the most fascinating and eye-opening experience during my ICS placement. I’m very grateful to my host mum, Madam Gladys; my counterpart, Daniel; and all the LIFE Project volunteers for their energy and support. When I get back to the UK, I will think more carefully about how I spend my cash, remembering what the money would mean to someone living in poverty.

From right to left: Daniel Agyei Mintah, Madam Gladys Bruno, Isaac Bruno, and Lauren Kelly 

By Lauren Kelly

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