The death of President (Here even on national TV presented in the rap form: Prez) John Atta Mills is not the only thing causing heated discussions over the future of Ghana. In 2007 sizeable amounts of oil was found of the coast. This has of course sparked a lot of enthusiasm in all layers of society and it is not rare to hear someone assume that oil exports are finally and sustainably going to lift Ghana to the group of middle income countries. I’ve seen the high-end residential area rising in Takoradi myself, without a doubt for people making their money from the oil industry. It seems that especially the ruling class is obsessed with working on oil issues and oil revenues on the expanse of other governmental tasks (Does it sound familiar?). There are however just as much people disillusioned with the oil hype.
After all, in very few countries in the world have the benefits
from oil exports spread out even nearly across the society as a whole. In Sub-Saharan
Africa successful management of the oil industry is so far a mission not
accomplished. Not surprisingly, skeptics in Ghana quickly point to the example
of Nigeria, where oil production after decades of activity has produced little
more than upheaval, conflicts and tremendous profits for MNCs and a few
selected local individuals. Ghana is not Nigeria, though, and there are many
examples of Ghana doing better than Nigeria or any other West-African country
in many aspects.
To get some local views on oil I turned to Boris (name changed), a friend and now an expert source on many issues in the country. He was quick to make it very clear that the general public, the “people”, is yet, after five years, to see (apart from newspapers) any positive effects generated by the black gold. Optimism is generally balanced by rising doubt, not least by a horrible (the general public perception) deal done by the government with Chinese investors (a firm called UNIPEC Asia Company Limited). This deal sees all Ghanaian oil exports for the next 15 years be handled by (in effect sold to) foreigners for the outrageously low price of $3 billion.
Ghana is also unfortunate in that the oil, naturally, has drawn the attention of the US military and energy security policy makers, who see Ghana as a part of the ‘New Gulf’, the oil-wise well endowed stretch of coast all the way from Morocco to Angola. One can only imagine the discontent amongst these policymakers over the deal between Ghana and China presented above!
So while politicians from all parties and ranks are racing to claim credit for discovering oil and fatten their wallets, there is a sober, rising skepticism (as for development work, for that matter) amongst “the people” that are well aware of the blessing/curse- dichotomy related to oil.
Suitably, Joseph Stiglitz happened the other day to touch upon the subject in the Guardian (I recommended that those interested read it!), asking whether natural resources will “be a blessing that brings prosperity and hope, or a political and economic curse, as has been the case in so many countries?” His conclusion is that the countries in question, in this case Ghana, have all the time in the world compared to the MNCs running after the resources. The simple advice is that of patience, unfortunately not shown by Ghana in the deal done with the Chinese.
What is a pity regarding the strive to make the best of the oil in the ocean is the attention, (already scarce) resources, activities and investment kept away from other classical issues, such as infrastructure development, education and health. One such issue is the universal wanting to develop renewable resources, of which one Ghana definitely has no shortage of: the sun. As technology both in the west and in China are rapidly developing and reduced in price, it would make sense for African countries to start substantially planning and working for a future where they would be very much self-sufficient when it comes to energy (There are already examples of villages across West-Africa that have reached this point). After all, oil is finite while sun, in Africa in an especially ironical and even poetical way, is not.
The misuse of oil-driven opportunities by affluent people is easy to see as parallel to the grab-and-hide behavior of many Ghanaian politicians. Insufficient social benefits and safety nets mean that people coming from humble backgrounds will possibly not have their and their families' futures secured by one term in office. Failing to being re-elected can lead to a plunge back into relative poverty instead of good employment opportunities. This explains, if not justifies, the reason why anyone in power will be hurried to make the best of his limited time on the top. Without a doubt, this is exacerbated when it comes to that one not renewable, high-value natural resource.
Politics, in turn, affect the efficiency of aid, a defining aspect of development geography. Whereas international aid obviously never is a sustainable solution and is often very artificial, there are many aspects in Ghanaian politics and society that make sure that aid is not going to reach its goal, irrelevance. A lot of aid money disappears mysteriously in what unfortunately can be described as natural in Africa. Boris (whose father used to work in aid and development for the EEC) pointed out some roads leading north from our neighborhood, Jachie junction, to the Airport Roundabout, for which plans and funding for paving were provided years if not decades ago. A good road here would make driving around the congested city a lot easier. Any sign of paving activities is yet to be seen.
I’ve also talked about the subject with M, a European living in Ghana. She has been living in Ghana for two decades and ran earlier a NGO. She put across a surprising view that a root cause to a lot of problems met by development work in Ghana is that people are even more often than in Europe driven by self-interest. This obviously causes distress to NGOs trying to gain support for projects without having much benefits to offer to the partners. This selfishness frustrated M to the degree that she had to let go of the NGO. Of course we have to keep in mind the other side of the story. What is quickly seen by Europeans as selfishness might simply stem from the general lack of resources and opportunities. Without proper safety nets people will always grasp every possible rope to stay high, a phenomenon above also connected to African politics.
Through M I have been put in touch with T-Bone (This is actually what he introduces himself as!). I went with Sander (one of two relatively new Belgians on the YES Project) to visit his company. A guy in a tank-top and dreadlocks with a machete the size of a young crocodile in his hand opened the looming, black, huge iron gate. Before we knew it the same guy had turned to be T-Bone himself and was rambling on about how vocational education is not taken seriously by anyone (Authorities, parents, students…) in Ghana. Technical and vocational education is, according to him, neglected and theoretical education overemphasized and glorified (Because of western influences?). This has quickly lead to a very real problem. As a lot of important technology in Ghana is either second-hand (in the west deemed useless) or cheap and Chinese, there is a large lack of maintenance in everything and everywhere, due to a lack of skilled hands-on professionals. A very illustrative example of this is that KNUST, which has departments for both industrial and art design has had to outsource the production of nice, brand new handrails in the main auditorium to none else than T-Bones company.
One more story, about a recurring theme in this blog: the security in Ghana. The other night I climbed with Robert and Bookie, a new Nigerian girl in The House, to central Kwamo to meet a new intern. Him being from India, we were looking forward to hearing that iconic Indian accent for a few weeks. When he arrived, it dawned to us that he is not from India but from Sri Lanka. Moreover he has lived all his life in London and speaks a disappointingly perfect Queen's English. Anyway, on the night-time Kwamo roadside we found a truck driver with his assistant blissfully sleeping on the sidewalk next to their tool. Bookie was shocked and explained, in a clear, naive tone of the 18-year-old she is, that in Nigeria the cute couple would swiftly have been chopped to pieces and had their limbs, heads and other parts used for witchcraft.