Hope in Ghana

Stephen DeAngelis

July 28, 2009

President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Ghana placed that small country in the global spotlight. President Obama selected Ghana for his first presidential visit to Africa because it stands in such stark contrast to many other African states [“Ghana Visit Highlights Scarce Stability in Africa,” by Adam Nossiter, New York Times, 10 July 2009]. In the region, however, people appeared more interested in talking about why other countries, like Kenya (his father’s homeland) and Nigeria (Africa’s most populous country), were snubbed rather than the positive message that a visit to Ghana could send.

“Mr. Obama says he chose Ghana to ‘highlight’ its adherence to democratic principles and institutions, ensuring the kind of stability that brings prosperity. ‘This isn’t just some abstract notion that we’re trying to impose on Africa,’ he told AllAfrica.com. He added: ‘The African continent is a place of extraordinary promise as well as challenges. We’re not going to be able to fulfill those promises unless we see better governance.’ With that as his objective, a harsh reality emerged: Mr. Obama did not have too many options. From one end of the continent to the other, the sort of peaceful, transparent election that Ghana held last December is still an exception rather than the norm, analysts said. The same is true for the country’s comparatively well-managed economy.”

That many, if not most, African nations suffer a crisis of leadership is no surprise. To learn more about leadership and governance in Africa, read my post entitled Leadership and Good Governance in Africa. Other countries that Obama could have considered were “Botswana, Namibia and South Africa [that] have consistently received better-than-average global scores for their governance in recent years, according to rankings based on World Bank research.” None of them, however, measures up to the progress made by Ghana. Nossiter continues:

“The list of exploding countries, unstable countries, corrupt countries, is long. Military coups still break out with regularity, as in Guinea and Mauritania within the last year. Journalists in a number of countries continue to be killed, jailed, tortured, forced into exile or otherwise muzzled. … Mr. Obama seemed to acknowledge as much in his interview, saying that the democratic progress in recent years had been accompanied by ‘some backsliding.’ He even singled out Kenya as a worrisome example, noting the political paralysis that had plagued the country since its bout of postelection violence last year.”

Africa as a whole remains a source of great frustration for many western governments.

“The gulf separating the West and many African leaders on fundamental issues like human rights was on display just last week. The African Union announced that it would refuse to cooperate with the International Criminal Court in its attempt to prosecute the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, for crimes against humanity, over the mass killings in Darfur. Even Mr. Atta-Mills [Ghana’s president] was reported to back the refusal as ‘best for Africa.’ Human rights groups denounced the decision, as did some African leaders on Friday, when a smaller African Union panel headed by South Africa’s former president, Thabo Mbeki, backed the court’s indictment and called on the accused to appear in court, news agencies reported. Despite the various rejections of the court, Mr. Obama’s top adviser for Africa, Michelle Gavin, praised for the African Union, telling reporters that it ‘has really been sort of forging ahead, commenting much more strongly than in the past on unconstitutional transfers of power.’ Yet some of the recent evidence from the continent only partly supports Ms. Gavin’s point. African leaders, for instance, flocked to the funeral of the recently deceased president of Gabon, Omar Bongo, lavishing praise and benedictions on a long-ruling autocrat widely seen in the West as having stolen his country’s oil wealth on the way to becoming immensely rich himself, while his country remained impoverished.”

That fact that many leaders still line their pockets with the wealth gained through the exploitation of natural resources is one of the reasons that many U.S. businesses remain hesitant to invest in Africa (for more on that subject, see my post entitled Investing in Africa]. Ahead of President Obama’s trip to Ghana, rock star and activist Bono wrote an op-ed piece that stressed the importance of changing Africa’s image [“Rebranding Africa,” New York Times, 9 July 2009]. He praised the President’s choice of Ghana as the first locale for a presidential visit.

“This is a country whose music of choice is jazz; a country that long ago invented a genre called highlife that spread across Africa — and, more recently, hiplife, which is what happens when hip-hop meets reggaetón meets rhythm and blues meets Ghanaian melody, if you’re keeping track (and you really should be). On a visit there, I met the minister for tourism and pitched the idea of marketing the country as the ‘birthplace of cool.’ (Just think, the music of Miles, the conversation of Kofi.) He demurred … too cool, I guess. Quietly, modestly — but also heroically — Ghana’s going about the business of rebranding a continent. New face of America, meet the new face of Africa. Ghana is well governed. After a close election, power changed hands peacefully. Civil society is becoming stronger. The country’s economy was growing at a good clip even before oil was found off the coast a few years ago. Though it has been a little battered by the global economic meltdown, Ghana appears to be weathering the storm. I don’t normally give investment tips — sound the alarm at Times headquarters — but here is one: buy Ghanaian. So it’s not a coincidence that Ghana’s making steady progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Right now it’s one of the few African nations that has a shot at getting there by 2015.”

Not everything, however, is rosy in Ghana. There is still poverty and some working conditions remain deplorable [“Scavenging Hazardous ‘E-Waste’ for a Few Redeemables,” by Karin Brulliard, Washington Post, 16 July 2009]. Brulliard talks about an 11-year-old boy named Simon who “spends every day at … a scrap yard at the impossibly teeming Agbogbloshie market in Ghana’s capital, mining — along with hundreds of men and boys — for metal wires and parts that can be re-sold and burning the plastic that encases them.” Most of the people scouring the scrap heap come from Ghana’s impoverished north.

“Hour after hour, their clanking tools pound apart computers and video game consoles that were discarded in the United States and Europe and shipped here to rot. Agbogbloshie is one hotspot in a growing mountain of hazardous electronic waste, according to environmentalists, who have adopted the issue as a clarion call for the information age. The site is also a stark example of the West’s continued abuse of Africa, critics say: The rich world not only extracts resources from the continent, it also uses it as a trash bin.”

There are ways to deal safely with refuse, but modern methods are hard to find in developing countries. That’s one reason that I began thinking about how best practices and world standards could be used to help emerging market regions develop more quickly and safely. Those thoughts eventually led to the creation of Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ offering. Ghana is moving in the right direction and the attention it received as a result of President Obama’s visit and rock star Bono’s endorsement should encourage it to remain on course. Staying the course for most African countries, however, has been an enormous challenge.