Africa & Beyond

Afromatics I: Goals We Can Believe In

Who among us has had to battle the headwinds of cynicism and pessimism from our fellow African brothers and sisters on the issue of how to improve the African condition? Raise your hand if you have ever been personally beaten down by such dialogue. I thought so!

It is a depressing experience facing the negativity brigade. I have been there and usually come across two types of individuals–actually, I do face other irksome types, but in my current forward facing mindset, I will not bring up “Haters” and other assorted nattering nabobs of negativism–in conversations with my fellow Africans.

The first type (cue the Apathy label) cannot be bothered to actually dig into the issues of development. They look at Africa (past, present and future) and all they see is trouble and the impossibility of improvement. They don’t see a way out of our current morass and keep on pointing out the history of our failures. Why bother when there are more pressing needs they personally face? The more religious then tend to mutter some fatalistic mumbo-jumbo about enduring what life is throwing at you. Really? If you take a look at the correlation between belief in God and economic success among nations, you are forced to the inescapable conclusion that the less we bring religion into our discourses on development, the more likely we are to get somewhere.

The other archetype (cue the Cynic label) revels in the poor track record of development efforts in Africa. To them it confirms what they consider to be obvious; Africa is destined to be poor and to be a laggard. This from fellow Africans! No matter how much we try, we are doomed to fail. They bolster their position by throwing out facts, theories and statistics that embody the awfulness of Africa’s current position and support their viewpoint that the poverty of most Africans (themselves excluded of course) is immutable. Underlying their nicely strung together analysis is an unspoken but ever present premise that we do not have it in us to materially change our conditions for the better. Guess what, if those views had held sway way back in the 20th century, would we have been able to throw off the colonial yoke? You’ve got to believe that life will be better and then go out and make it happen. Otherwise, you will never get out of bed (metaphorically speaking).

What we need is a proactive and positive approach towards African development. I am going to start by stressing how easy it is for majority of Africans to be wealthy. Once we understand how doable it is to get the majority of our citizens out of poverty, the conversations we typically have will be more productive. Ultimately, success will depend on having the right perspective and a desire to be successful irrespective of what sacred beliefs are gored.

Now, I will be the first to recognize the immensity of the task at hand and the dire straits in which most of the denizens of the Motherland find themselves in. All sort of indices make clear the level of poverty in Africa. I am going to use my country of birth, Ghana, as the prime vehicle for expanding on my thoughts. However, before I go further, let me knock down the usual argument that Ghana is relatively better when compared to other African countries. That sort of mindset will ensure that Ghanaians remain poor. Lowered expectations mean lowered results and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Let us start throwing out the fuel of any useful fire (sorry, I mean debate): statistics. When we compare per capita GDP (calculated using Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)), our inadequacies become painfully exposed. Ghana’s is at $1,400, Malaysia’s is at $14,500, Chile’s is at $14,300 and Denmark’s is at $37,200. We can also look at the percentage of people in poverty which explicitly shows how the benefits of development are distributed (or not). Ghana has 31.4% of its citizens living in poverty which unfavorably compares with Thailand (10%), Jamaica (14.8%) or Austria (5.9%). Finally, the use of the Gini coefficient index to estimate income inequality is an eye opening exercise. While countries such as Belgium (28), Norway (28) lead in terms of ensuring the spoils of a society are more evenly spread across the entire populace, countries such as Ghana (39.4) and Nigeria (43.7) illustrate the skewing of income towards a few.

Numbers alone don’t tell the tale. If you have traveled to or lived in more affluent societies, the level of poverty in Ghana is viscerally shocking. Of course in our global village, even those poor individuals without the wherewithal to physically travel to affluent societies can still see what they are missing. Within a hour of leaving Kotaka International Airport, you can be in midst of absolute squalor in either an urban or rural setting. Sanitation conditions are deplorable with open sewers swimming with scum. In Accra, the air quality and “go-slow” traffic makes each day a pollution heavy endurance test The State does not seem to be able to adequately provide protection from criminals which makes us willingly imprison ourselves in our own homes. You are on your own for the basic necessity of water and electricity power provision is pretty much a hit or miss affair. Out in the countryside, health facilities are grossly inadequate and you are not guaranteed to be able to make it to your ancestral village in the rainy season when roads seem to melt away. It is painful to see this and know that somewhere in this world, just a few hours by plane, even dogs are enjoying better conditions in terms of shelter, food and health services than the majority of citizens in Ghana. No wonder Ghanaians will risk their lives in the journey to the so-called Land of Milk and Honey.

Let me reaffirm my fundamental belief about the current situation in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa. At this juncture in our history, in this 21st century, there is no need for us to live in this fashion. We do not need to be so poor. Putting dogma aside and critically examining our circumstances can yield some useful discernment as to the course of action that offers the best chance for prosperity.

The axiomatic insight needed is a definition of what it is we are trying to accomplish when we talk about developing Ghana. In my book, we should aim to increase per capita income to a level that ensures that people in Ghana are enjoying a materially improved life. Just as importantly, we want a more even distribution of wealth so that the benefits of higher incomes do not accrue to just a few. Net-net, our success in turning around Ghana will be measured in two ways: a) a reduction in the number of Ghanaians in poverty; and b) an increase in the income level that marks the poverty threshold. If you consider a $750 yearly income level (per person) to be your poverty level, you obviously have a ways to go before catching up with a country that considers $10,000 to be the relevant poverty threshold.

Clarity of purpose gives me grounds for optimism. Lets take our first goal: increasing per capita incomes. If we can boost our growth rates a tad above what we are doing today, that magic elixir called compounding will put us on Happy Street. It is the same principle used when you put away a little bit of money for your retirement or children’s education. Over a 20 or 30 year period those small sums turn into real cash. By the same token it is entirely conceivable for Ghana to transform itself in a 20 or 25 year period. We may not become richer than the US but we will be so much better off that we will feel richer than those we used to look at longingly.

This phenomenon is behind what I call the Afromatics Relativity Theory Of Income: it is not your absolute income level that makes you feel rich or poor; it is the difference between your income today and your income in the past that has the strongest impact on your sense of well-being .

Starting with Ghana’s per capita income of $1400 today (2008) and achieving a real per capita growth rate of 10% over 25 years, Ghanaians in 2033 will enjoy current Malaysia-like living standards. That $1,400 will turn into approximately $15,000. Today, real growth rates hover in the 3% – 4% range per year. We need to triple it which can done by both increasing economic growth rates and reducing population growth rates. All this is extremely doable, trust me. For an economy the size of Ghana, boosting growth rates is actually easier to do when compared to mature economies such as the OECD economies.

A $15,000 per capita income level means a society that has the resources to host the Olympics. In other words, we would have arrived. Amazingly, all of this would have been accomplished in one generation (25 years). Think about it: if you had a child today, by the time he or she got out in the world and started fending for him or herself, Ghana would no longer be one of the basket cases attracting headlines for all the wrong reasons. Would your child want to vote with his or her feet and migrate to a foreign land? Methinks not; and you (in all your wisdom) will be seen as part of the generation that brought about fundamental material change in Ghana. Wouldn’t that be something!

Our other major goal is that of a more egalitarian society which can be measured by my favorite obscure index: the Gini coefficient index. Getting that index from 40 where we are today to 30 or lower means success in my book. The countries widely considered to be doing well in this respect typically have coefficients in the 20s range. This is also eminently doable if we ensure that the rural population who make up the bulk of the population in Ghana enjoy the fruits of the increased economic growth we are aiming for.

If we are really serious about improving conditions for the majority of Ghanaian citizens, we must be absolutely clear what our goals are. The most critical step in a multi-year development effort is a crystal clear picture of what success would look like. We have to know when we arrive at our destination.

Here is my take on what Ghana will look like when we make it: when we increase our real per capita growth rate (by 10% or greater every year), and when we do so in the right way (making sure the rural residents enjoy the benefits of economic growth), most citizens of Ghana will definitely live better lives in the not so distant future. They will be healthier and better educated, will not go to bed hungry, will be better educated and will be able to enjoy improved leisure and entertainment options in a much more safer environment. These are goals we can believe in!

But I can see the questions trembling on your lips; yes, all this is good but how do we really increase those growth rates and ensure the wealth is spread around. Where are the revelations that will insure we meet these goals. Don’t worry, be assured that the future articles in the Afromatics series will turn to the heavy lifting of how to effect the meaningful change required for success in the Ghana project. But don’t expect silver bullets though, because when it comes to societal wide development, these don’t exist. What you will get is a commonsensical approach towards broad based development that is firmly grounded on first principles.

To be continued…

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