Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My Snap of the Fingers, Blink of the Eyes Wish

In my short time here, I’ve spent a lot of it thinking about development in Ghana. Be it economic, political, or any other kind, development inherently moves at a snail’s pace. We would all like to be able to point to rapid and drastic progress being made in terms of weeks and months (especially when your funding comes and goes at the whim of politicians on election cycles), but the fact remains that development timelines are measured in years, and most large-scale progress is only visible when you take a step back and look at how far you’ve come over a longer period of time.

But midway through last month marked my six month semi-anniversary here, and I started asking myself: what if this wasn’t the case? What if I could snap my fingers or blink my eyes and something about Ghana would be instantaneously changed. If I had that power, what would my one thing be? (Normal people fantasize about fame or fortune or attractive celebrities, but these are the fantasies of those of us working in development. We don’t get out much.)

For the last few weeks, I’ve thought long and hard about what this one wish would be, and I think I’m finally at peace with my decision and ready to share it….drum roll please…..Sorry, you’re not gonna get it that easily. I think this would be best if done in a suspense-building countdown of my top three. Also, as an added teaser, none of my top three have anything to do with eradicating malaria! Crazy, I know, and also added intrigue. So, without further ado, here goes. If I had a proper three-wish-granting genie, these are what they would be:

#3 – Universal Primary Education (that is actually free)

This is pretty self explanatory. Health and education are the cornerstones of development, the two most important things, hands down. No one gets anywhere without them. Primary education in Ghana is supposed to be free for all, but this is not the case in practice. Not only is there a serious lack of teachers and other resources (as in most developing countries) preventing all children who want to go to school from having an adequately-staffed one, but also for those who do have a school to attend, it’s never actually free. I cannot tell you how many stories I’ve heard of students being sent home from school because their parents are unable to pay the $3 per month in school fees. This needs to change.

#2 – Universal Access to Information and Interventions to Promote Reproductive Health Rights

I almost didn’t include this one, because it involves changing cultural and societal norms of equating more children with higher status (and I tried to stay away from changing cultural and societal things), but this one is too important to ignore. Recent and future trends show declining population rates in developed countries and significantly increasing population growth rates in developing countries. This is almost exactly the opposite of what an ideal scenario would be and further exacerbates the development challenges faced by the world’s poorest nations.

I know this will not be a universally popular choice, as my small-but-loyal readership spans the political spectrum. But this is not really about personal views regarding condom use and abortion or the purpose of intercourse and when a human life truly begins. This is about individual freedom and math. If you want to talk about the sanctity of human life, I’d like to ask if there is anything sacred about a family that can barely feed two children having seven. I am constantly amazed by the young women sleeping on the curb who, without homes of any kind, still managed to find private places to have sex and produce the multiple children sleeping next to them, or the teenagers hawking goods in the middle of traffic, breathing in hour upon hour of automobile exhaust and fumes, with babies wrapped around their backs breathing in the same air.

And this is also related to wish #3, as statistics indisputably show a correlation between the level of education a person has and his/her number of children. But all of this stems from a lack of information about, and access to, modern contraceptive methods and family planning interventions. This wish is not advocating extreme measures like limiting family size in China. This wish is just meant to make all women and families AWARE of these options and able to access them if they CHOOSE to do so. That knowledge and ability can make all the difference.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the number one spot.

#1 – The Miracle of Urban Planning and Maps

I wish that every street in Ghana had a name, that every home and business in Ghana had exact, differentiating street addresses, and that the government made use of such things for all administrative purposes, especially TAX COLLECTION. I know that after all that build up, this might seem like a boring one, but wow is it important (and mind-numbing to see that it remains undone). For the purposes of this blog, let's call this Map Ghana (MG).

Right now, I would estimate that less than 5% of the roads in Ghana have names, less than 5% of the people have home addresses, and less than 10% of the businesses have addresses. These figures are just estimates, but you get the idea. The reasons for this are cultural, so I am breaking my own rule again, but I would invoke the importance clause again. Ghanaians, I’ve been told, have never used road names, and never felt the need to; they are a 100% foreign import. If you ask a Ghanaian for directions, you better know your landmarks, because all anyone speaks of are signboards (billboards) and buildings. Even those few main roads that do have names are not widely known amongst most locals. As a general rule, Ghanaian knowledge of approximate distances, cardinal directions, and other map-related things leaves much to be desired. I was also publicly laughed at when I asked to buy a map of Accra in a bookstore.

Whenever I bring up MG in conversation, it seems to fall on deaf ears, and Ghanaians seem to be of the opinion that road names and addresses would never catch on. It is a foreign import that was never adopted by the native African tribes for centuries. To this, I would say that the same thing was probably said about Democracy, and that seemed to turn out ok for everyone here.

For everyday living, the efficiency gains of having a system of named streets and addresses are too numerous to count. However, these gains would pale in comparison to those that would be accrued to the government, and this is why it is number one on my list. Yes, the obvious winner would be the postal system (which is quite abysmal by Western standards). Currently, if someone wants to send me a package, I have to tell them to address it to our office (because my home is impossible to find), and because our office lacks a proper address, I have to tell people to write the neighborhood name, the closest named street, “near” a locally-known landmark, and the phone number of our office. Theoretically, the package goes to the national office, then the regional office, then to the smaller neighborhood office where they will either call you to come pick it up, or call you in the midst of delivery so that you can provide exact directions. The fastest I have received a package from the US is about a month after it was sent, and the slowest was two and a half.

While MG would be the biggest game-changer in the history of the Ghanaian postal system, the biggest winner in all of this would be the IRS. Yes, they have an IRS here too, and no, it does not do a good job. Think about the difficulties inherent in tax collection without the ability to systematically locate most of your country’s population or businesses. The vast majority of the private sector here is what we in development euphemistically refer to as the “informal sector” meaning the non tax-paying kiosk type shops and businesses that line almost every road in Ghana. And all the income generated from these and other businesses would be called the “under the table” non-taxable kind. All this is to say that the government is left high and dry trying to provide public services to the entire population (including a new National Health Insurance Scheme NHIS), which is just about bankrupt), when only a small fraction is actually paying taxes for them.

In my seventh grade social studies class, I remember learning that after the American Revolution, the new nation formed a weak government under what was called the Articles of Confederation. It was weak for several reasons, the most paramount of which was that it did not have the power to tax. For over a decade, this government struggled and ultimately collapsed, prompting the writing of the Constitution in 1789. While America seemed to learn its lesson early on, maybe we wouldn’t have if we had donors constantly subsidizing our lack of tax-generated revenue.

Like most countries, Ghana has a tumultuous history of raising and lowering taxes, and as with tax issues in any country, MG would be classified high risk/high reward. In recent history, Ghana implemented a highly-contentious value added tax (VAT) in 1995 to try to mitigate the lack of income, property, business and other taxes it should have been collecting. Akin to a sales tax, it was set at 17% and repealed shortly thereafter due to public protest. After an extensive public education campaign, it was reintroduced in 1998 at 10%. Two years later, the VAT was raised to 12% by those same politicians who railed against it while in the opposition party in 1998, but who had now taken over power by 2000. It still stands at 12% today, with a 2.5% NHIS tax on top of it. The problem is that Ghanaians really enjoy not paying taxes, and any measure that might be seen as a means to eventually create or raise taxes is not politically feasible. Last week, due to public outcry, the head government statistician had to come out publicly and say that the new census Ghana is trying to implement is not intended for tax purposes.

But MG would also be high reward, and should really be considered a prerequisite for any modern sovereign nation-state to effectively govern itself. (This is why people attain graduate degrees in urban planning and why Google Maps is so amazing.) The direct gains of administrative efficiency and tax generation are obvious, but it would also have myriad indirect effects of increasing accountability of government to its citizens (and vice versa) and spur much-needed consolidation in the informal sector (Everyone and their brother runs a kiosk shop selling oil and tomato paste to each other, but this would certainly change if everyone all of a sudden had to pay taxes to run their business.) just to name a few. The rewards are endless, and I can guarantee that Ghanaians will learn the names of roads and addresses if the government and the IRS lead the way. Ghana would then have money to finance family planning initiatives and universal primary education, where students could learn about maps! It’s so perfect that it brings a tear to my eye. These are the things I fantasize about.


  1. Wow. This is unfathomable to me. I had no idea regarding the lack of maps and addresses. I went to a talk a couple of weeks ago all about how the British taught natives cartography techniques to map various parts of the subcontinent. Oh, colonialism.

    My mom comes from a small town in Ohio which was literally blown away by a tornado in 1974. She tells stories about how people who had lived there their whole lives were getting lost because every landmark that people had used to navigate by had been destroyed or blown away.

  2. Great post. While the business I'm going to be working for has an exact address, we have been astounded to learn through our research that your observations are correct. Since I have worked in the diagnostics business for over 10 years with this company, I can also say that the healthcare system is struggling because of lack of funds. If a person needs some blood work done and there are not supplies available to do so because the government hasn't paid the companies that run the labs, then they are turned away. In my dealing with Ghanaians over these past 10 years, they are both beautiful and frustrating people all at once.

  3. Personally, I would switch your one and three. I realize that there are A LOT of issues with urban planning and so forth in Ghana, but high quality education will always be the only way for Ghanaianas to truly develop. The education system must be opened up and allow for students to learn and grow in innovative ways like at Ashesi. I firmly believe that development in Ghana MUST be done by and for Ghanaians that is the only way true development and personal freedom will come to Ghana.