Reflections from Conversations

Author with Ashesi & Berekuso Toilet Building team. (photo from team member’s phone)

Walking the path from my hostel, through Berekuso, and up the hill to Ashesi, I tend to think about the good and bad of living in Ghana, what works well and what changes would improve the lives of most citizens. At points the path can be wide, but while climbing the hill it narrows without a view of the top, and at these points I return to a frequent conversation I’ve had while here: “You know Ghana, it’s hard. We try but it’s not easy.” These words originated from my friend Kwasi who has repeated them likely 10 times since we started talking shortly after my May arrival. The subjects change from work, to money, or to politics, but the conversations is often distilled down to this straightforward observation. Our weekly chats have provided me with a stark understanding and appreciation of how life is viewed in Ghana, or at least for those in the rural parts of the Southern region. Like approximately 70% of Ghanaians, Kwasi is connected to the agriculture sector, working as a labourer on a farm where they grow organic vegetables by hand. His future goal is to have his own farm, but he knows right now his value is based on his farming knowledge as well as his capacity for physical labour. Kwasi tells me his situation is better than others because his boss values him and he has steady work, meaning he can provide neighbours and friends with little loans when they need them. However, he knows his value will someday evaporate after his body gives up on farming, leaving him without a source of income or a safety net. He says he has no social security, no pension, and no belief that his boss would take care of him should he be unable to work. It’s a tough situation for Kwasi because he loves Ghana and farming, but he can’t hide his knowledge and fear of the future. Considering there’s an institutional body in Ghana to look after such social services, Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT), it shouldn’t be this way. The problem exists because contributing to a SSNIT plan would require working in the formal sector; Kwasi (like many Ghanaians) participates in the informal sector where these things (and taxes) don’t exist. He lives in a rural village that has no street names or house numbers, which means the SSNIT bureaucratic machine would have a hard time creating a database of contributions and owings. This is a problem for Ghana because there are millions like Kwasi who view living day-to-day in the informal sector as their best chance at income.

With these conditions in mind, Kwasi and I talk about the future. He’d like to raise chickens because his farm is currently the middleman for some chicken sales and it looks like good money. When I say that it might be unfair for him to steal the business of growing and selling chickens from some other local farmer, Kwasi doesn’t really understand what I’m getting at. He’s looking out for his own, for his family, and he’s got the better connections anyways. As far as he’s concerned, there are no negative impacts. From my (big caveat) 3-month perspective, it seems to represent a deeper internal struggle Kwasi (and many Ghanaians) face: looking after yourself versus helping others. Whether it’s clustering at the ordering counter of a fast food restaurant, or cutting people off in traffic, a desire exists to look after oneself ahead of others because if you don’t, you might not get what you need. More problematically, this occurs through the persistence of corruption. This corruption occurs when the central/regional/local governments “chop” money for their own needs, or when construction projects suddenly have their budgets evaporate halfway through, or when the cops ask for a little gift at a stop light to help you move along. Many Ghanaians I’ve met have complained about corruption, and yet they also show a desire to look after themselves in many smaller situations. And this is not solely a Ghanaian issue, nor is it a problem of all Ghanaians, but it’s easy to understand how someone with this mindset on a small scale could start abusing power and money to ensure they’re comfortable should they be put in such a position. Kwasi put this all together for me in one quote:

“Ghana has the natural resources, but they’re not shared. We have gold, oil, diamonds, cocoa. But it’s not easy because a few people have a lot of money and aren’t helping the people… Our leaders, they’re not helping us. They’re looking after their own, they take care of their own. They need to help the youth, but they’re not. They youth have no work, they’re walking around town with nothing to do. They decide they need to steal small small items here and there to help themselves while the government chops the money.”

The government steals for themselves, and those negatively impacted by it have to steal for themselves too. Currently, the GINI coefficient of Ghana is probably around 0.55 or higher, which means there is a high level of wealth inequality. Being here, it’s easy to see this reflected in the fact that only a small percentage of people live at, or above, the World Bank’s estimate for Ghana’s Gross National Income (GNI) ($1,480.00). The reinforcing loop that exists between inequality, corruption, and culture is one that Ghana is dealing with, and finding a leverage point that can break this loop is needed.

Berekuso from the top of the hill

Towards the top of the hill the path widens, allowing me to look out at Berekuso and shifting my thoughts on the little town going about its day-to-day activities; I continue on my way. At Ashesi, the goal is to produce a new type of African leader, one that is both entrepreneurial and motivated to create change through ethical leadership. These future leaders have lived with the corruption discussed above, but are learning that there’s an alternate route for building Africa. The Founder and President of Ashesi, Patrick Awuah Jr., expands on the issue & ideal here. During my time here, I’ve been constantly impressed by the faculty and student’s commitment to “The Ashesi Way”: Scholarship, Leadership, and Citizenship. Sticking to these core values is needed because Ashesi is a lighthouse on a cliff that is constantly battered by the waves of Ghanaian culture – if it’s not diligent in maintaining itself, it will be washed away. Here, students envision and involve themselves in many projects and initiatives aimed to improve Ghana, extending from reducing environmental risks, to citizen empowerment, to increasing access to education for children. Truly, it is an exciting environment that I have been lucky to be a part of. However, as I walk towards my office, I can’t help but think of two problems that Ashesi faces as it continues to grow and mould the students, along with the institution itself:

Firstly, the students at Ashesi like to be involved in multiple projects which, as mentioned above, is fantastic. These are engaged students with a desire to create a better way forward in Africa. However, some students are involved in too much, which stretches themselves too thin, often to the detriment of the projects they’re involved in. I’m not sure of all of the factors that drive a student to be involved in so much, but some conversations have pointed to the desire to showcase how much they did or were involved in. It is a desire most people (Canada, Ghana, everywhere) have to fight: the desire that doing “more” will mean you will be recognized and benefit more than those who did “less”. But this favours the means over the ends, and if the ultimate outcome is less than what it could have been (or forgotten altogether) then what was the value of the project? This is something that Ashesi is aware of, as they continue to define the balance between cultivating outgoing and ambitious students with misguided enthusiasm.  Building future leaders requires them to push and incentive students to be active, but they also have to ensure the students balance the competitive careerism with true, beneficial impact.

Secondly, for many of these projects there seems to be a favouritism towards technology and technical solutions, which may be potentially shortsighted. Ghana is one of many developing nations that is transitioning into the tech-heavy world Canada already exists in, and there is urgency in this transition. The capability for technology to enact powerful change cannot be ignored, with the digitization of services providing an example of increased bureaucratic functionality and efficiency. However, my fellow MDPer Kaylia talked about the risks of technological jumps in a recent post, and I think it’s a valid concern. Thinking about the income, inequality and corruption issues discussed above, technological solutions alone can’t create change – what’s needed are alterations to the foundation and infrastructure of Ghana itself. For almost any technological innovation, lasting success occurs not because of the technology itself but from its infrastructure, and this is valid at the developmental level too. If the foundation and infrastructure are not changed, if the core dynamics of the system (politics, the economy, education) are not changed, the outcome will not be fully realized. I know this may not be a truth of Ashesi, but in my interactions here it feels like students are drawn by the allure of technology because it offers a faster route to success, recognition and/or money in place of focusing on high-leverage, long-term foundational corrections. Hopefully as more and more Ashesi graduates filter into the world I hope they will become involved in politics and government and businesses where they’ll be able to make the benefits of technological developments accessible to all.

Walking to the neighbouring town, Ayim, with (L-R) Stephen and Tom (fellow MDPer)

Beyond the walls and projects of Ashesi, my time here in Ghana has made me reflect on the Cost/Benefit ratio of an initiative that we hope people will participate in. The MDP program reminds us that Cost & Benefit are not just monetary values, but also include the environmental and social value that is relative to a particular setting. The projects I’ve been involved with, a WASH project and an Agri-business one, are aimed at reducing risk (in terms of health, the environment, income, etc) while creating local environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, in Berekuso cost and benefit are almost always viewed in monetary terms, with money at the heart of most considerations. But this is not a fault of theirs – with such a low average income they are forced into a day-to-day scenario of prioritizing income over everything else. It has been shown that poverty inhibits cognitive skills, meaning people would value short term monetary gains over environmental improvements even if these environmental improvements would create better monetary gains in the long term. The resiliency of the poverty cycle is something not easily broken. So how can we make people pay for a service or improvement that doesn’t give immediate monetary returns? This is a question I’ve wrestled with most of the summer, but I’m not sure I have an answer. Talking with some Ghanaians, it seems presenting environmental or social issues in monetary terms may be the best route, with an example being: “reducing and removing waste from the ground will improve the water quality, leading to increased health and lower future medical costs.” I believe deferring to a local who can perceive the value in their own terms, and have them work to facilitate the change is probably the best method, but I’m open to all possibilities. Beyond that, I had a conversation around what development means for Berekuso, whether its technological consumption or quality of life – knowing that it’s not actually a binary option. There’s a balance point to find, which would allow people in Berekuso to have increased access and knowledge to empower themselves, but in the end we both agreed quality of life may be the better target because it reduces the financial burdens on people.

My time in Ghana and Ashesi has been enjoyable, new, and eye opening, but also cautious and saddening. Like every nation in the world, the good and bad, the joy and frustration, and everything in-between are all part of the experience. Every day at Ashesi brings new opportunities to learn, to discuss and envision where it, Berekuso, Ghana, and Africa are heading. I hope when my Ashesi colleagues look into the future, they can  see the mistakes we have made, and continue to make, in Canada and choose to emulate only the positive processes and policies that will works in the Ghanaian context. When my time here comes to an end, I’ll be sad to leave but excited to be home. Heading down the hill to my hostel, it’s funny to acknowledge that even though I know the way back, the path doesn’t always reveal itself, leaving me to pause to see if I’m even heading in the right direction.





Blog Stephen

Stephen Little is a Master’s Student of cohort 4 in the Master of Development Practice program. Stephen is the Class Representative for his cohort. His current research interests include sustainable urban futures, social-ecological development, economic development, and systems thinking.


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