Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Good with the Bad

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful for the times like this, when the power is on and the internet is working. It provides me the opportunity to be online, to post blogs like this, and to Skype with my mom, Gordy and Ashley, as I just did. In America, most people would not count these as some of their blessings, but in Africa, they certainly are.

Not only is internet availability a privilege for few, but this week alone we have experienced daily power outages, some lasting 20 minutes, others a few hours. While I am told that they never happen with this frequency, the fact remains that they are. During these outages, all lights go off (obviously), but it also affects the air conditioning (a pretty big deal) and the internet, due to the fact that the router is now off. In addition, all desktops are now off, and despite the advertisements, my laptop, which is now forced to run on battery power, doesn’t have more than an hour or so of juice left. That email I was about to send will have to wait.

For all intents and purposes, office life comes to a halt. Yes, there is always reading to be done, and I have already made a habit of downloading PDF reports when I can (to read in such an eventuality), but the rapidly rising temperature makes it almost unbearable in the office. We do have a back-up generator, but it takes about 15 minutes to get going, and we wait at least that long to see if this outage will be a short one. On a related note, a former CGD colleague of mine, Vijaya Ramachandran, has researched and written extensively about power outages in the developing world (specifically focusing on Nigeria and India) and the detriment they have to a thriving private sector. The statistics related to the losses in $ faced by businesses due to these outages is large, to say the least.

Our trusty 200-pound generator

Now I know that I have been writing about diseases, power outages and other sour subjects, but I want to put it all in perspective, and end on a high note so that everyone can have a happy Thanksgiving. As I often do, I will relay some quick reflections of two very promising things I saw one afternoon driving around town with Charles. The first has to do with a street vendor of a different sort. Rather than selling food, phone cards or razor blades, he is selling newspapers. Not only is he selling newspapers, but he is selling a variety of newspapers, from across the political spectrum. These papers are not government-controlled propaganda; but rather, they are very reputable publications, many critical of the current government, and they represent the very essence of what it means to have freedom of the press.

Front cover a popular newspaper called the "Daily Graphic"

The other one has to do with a billboard. No, this is not one about HIV. This promising billboard is one for an opposition candidate running for president: a remnant of last year’s VERY heated presidential election (internationally certified to be free and fair) that had to be decided in a run-off. It represents the strength of democracy in Ghana. Democracy is so well-rooted in society, that earlier this year, President Obama came specifically to Ghana to congratulate its citizens on their successful and peaceful transition of power and emphasize how Ghana is a “beacon of hope” for the rest of the African continent.

The election billboard

Just like reliable internet and being able to live and work without daily power outages, a free press and strong democracy are things most Americans take for granted. Most will not consciously be thankful for them on this day. But in the developing world, these advances cannot be underappreciated. So remember, Ghana may have its fair share of problems, but at least it’s not Somalia.

Now have a very happy Thanksgiving and pour some gravy and/or cranberry sauce out for a guy who will go without this year.

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