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You went to Ghana? Why?

Robert Spoden
Robert Spoden

So yeah, I lived in Ghana for a few months back in 2014 as an exchange student when I was at UC Santa Cruz. My experiences in Accra, Ghana were quite eye-opening. The bubble of American privilege in which I had obliviously spent all my time up to then was quickly lanced. This is going to be somewhat of a lengthy post, as it includes an essay I wrote while there while I attended the University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP) at the University of Ghana in Accra. I am including this essay in the post because it does a good job in telling some of the story of contemporary Ghana. It does so in a fun and lighthearted way and is written in the style of dialogue between me and you. While the original essay didn’t include pictures, I’m posting some here to make it a bit more interesting and to break it up a bit, as it’s a relatively lengthy university-level essay complete with citations and all that good stuff. I’m confident you’ll have fun reading this and won’t be disappointed, so here we go!

The Effects of Development Politics in the Third World as Seen Through My Eyes

Curiosity is what compelled me to make the journey to Ghana. I knew it would not be easy – consistencies that I have taken for granted such as running water, electricity and roads would no longer be reliable. I would see a level of poverty that would make the some most abject circumstances in the U.S. seem relatively luxurious. I also came here as a student of political science. After debating the fine points of political theory, of writing neat academic papers with elaborately constructed arguments, of reading dense and heady textbooks on Sub-Saharan African political development with material as dry as the paper they’re written on, I wanted to come here, and see for myself. I wanted to draw my own conclusions about development politics, and that required me venturing out of comfortable ivory tower nestled atop Cowell Ranch in Santa Cruz.

Taken from Cowell College, UC Santa Cruz
It look like this car has been here awhile.

Ghana accepted me as a guest, graciously sending me a student visa affixed to my passport, for a modest fee of course. Initially, I was dazzled. The streets here resembled a jumble of chaos. The differences between what I was accustomed to and what I encountered immediately after stepping off the plane were stark; overwhelming even. Yet, after growing accustomed to my new environment, I sense an overall lack of social justice. It seems that contemporary development politics play a major role in perpetuating this injustice, and alternative development ideas need to be explored.

We’re well on our way to yet another essay, it seems, but instead of subjecting you to another set of dry academic ideas, I invite you to come with me to Ghana, and take a stroll. We’ll catch a tro-tro, and head to Jamestown, a fishing village on the coast, just Southwest of downtown Accra. I know you have a lot to do, but in Ghana, there’s always time! The prevailing ethos, “time is money,” doesn’t apply here anyway. I have encountered many Ghanaians who have stopped me on my “important” errand and asked me how I was doing, and actually wanted to know. The nerve of them! But really, what is the rush that we feel in the U.S. all about? Relax we’re in Ghana! Akwaaba! You are welcome! Your imagination will spare you fifteen hours in coach class as we embark on our leisurely stroll.

Our outing begins at Legon campus, also known as the University of Ghana. The landscape here is clean and pristine, and the roads are paved, and decently maintained; there are some stretches with potholes. The most striking feature is that along the roads, on either side is a drainage ditch, about two feet deep. Watch your step! The students here typically come from families that are fortunate enough to afford to send them to college. Financial aid is limited, for the Aid office says that from 2006 to 2011, over 1500 students applied for aid, but about 950 were accepted (Financial Aid Statistics n.d.). The number of total applicants for that period of time seems relatively low, given that there’s just under 30,000 students enrolled, last I checked on the web (Enrolment and Graduation Statistics n.d.). Every time I think about this, I shudder, because I am not a traditional student, and my parents are not paying for my education.

The Balme Library around the center of Legon Campus University of Ghana

Venturing to Okponglo junction, the tro-tro stop at the Southeast corner of campus, we walk by a set of two multi-story compounds under guard and ringed with concertina just beneath the balconies on the second story. You turn toward me to ask a question:

“Why does this building have barbed wire around it, and the others don’t?”

“This is where most of the international students stay, and the barbed wire is there to keep those who may be tempted to scurry up the walls out. There are large disparities of wealth here, and like back in in the States, if you’re wealthy and go to certain quarters, you run the risk of being robbed. In Ghana, foreigners are widely seen as wealthy. Fortunately, most Ghanaians I have run into are really nice. In fact, I have felt safer on the streets here than in some parts of America. A little common sense and awareness goes a long way.” You seem satisfied with my reply, so we keep going toward Okponglo.

On our way to the tro-tro stop, the sidewalk abruptly ends, as a long stretch of it is torn up, forcing us to use the non-existent shoulder of the narrow roadway. The sidewalk has been in this condition for quite awhile. Taxis drive by, some honking their horns. A driver slows, wanting to know where we’re heading.

“Where are you going? You should get in my car, I can take you there,” implores the cab driver.

“It’s okay. We’re going to Jamestown, but want to take the tro-tro. Thank you, and God Bless,” I reply, as a vehicle passes him, blaring its horn.

The taxi drives off, and we continue, passing the massive concrete shell of an incomplete sports stadium. Signs of active construction there are sparse; there are no work crews present, yet it is a weekday.

“So, how long has the sidewalk been torn up, and what’s with the stadium,” you ask. “The government has limited funding. There’s not enough revenue to go around, and whatever there is, is not distributed evenly. You will see more of evidence of this on the way.”

We arrive at the highway. There is a bike path and a sidewalk here, and they are frequently crowded with street vendors. Elaborating on that I said earlier, I turn to you and explain, “East Legon is a relatively wealthy neighborhood. The Accra Mall is just a couple kilometers South.” The traffic stopped, as the light turned red. Some young men on motorcycles kept going anyway, taking the light as quaint roadside decor. Women, carrying baskets atop their heads laden with merchandise, meandered between the cars. One of the women had a baby strapped to her back. You look on in amazement as these vendors efficiently hawked water sachets, plantain chips, groundnuts, and toilet paper.

A groundnut seller

“Wow, Ghana has quite a street culture!”

“Yes, that was my first impression. But I implore you to think about it a little deeper,” I reply, with a serious look. Not immediately seeing my point, I offer to explain further: “I heard a lecture by a professor Gavua, who teaches economic anthropology.”

“Yeah? What did he say?” “He said that Ghana has been heavily influenced from the outside for hundreds of years, that even the fabric that is considered Ghanaian is from the Dutch. Ghana was colonized, and since then has imported most of its commodities. In light of these facts, Professor Gavua challenged us to consider what we see on the streets, with the vendors, with people cooking with charcoal and such, as not Ghanaian culture, per se, but rather, a culture of poverty” (Gavua 2014).

“Circ! Circ! Circ!” A mate calls out from the side window of a tro-tro as it pulls up. He steps out, gesturing energetically for us to get inside. Two other tro-tros pull up whose mates call out different destination. It’s a little confusing, as all three young men are imploring us to get on their respective minibuses. I ask the other two mates if they’re going to Tema Station, and one says he is. We get in his tro-tro, delicately packing ourselves into two of the 20 seats crammed in the back of a minibus. The battered door slides shut, and we move forward, rattling past the other tro-tros. The mate, an energetic young man, keeps diligent vigil for potential fares while frequently shouting out the window and pointing is hand upward. We are heading South, into the bowels of Accra.

An empty tro-tro with the mate at the door on the lookout for potential fares

As you marvel at the street scenery, our progress is slowed by a tro-tro up ahead that has broken down in the middle of the highway. Traffic grinds to a halt, and horns blare. It is hot out, and we are packed inside the small minibus. The novelty and charm of the tro-tro ride starts to wear thin, and you remember the last thing I mentioned about culture in Ghana. After reflecting on it for a bit, you ask, “I heard that Ghana is one of the most developed countries in Africa, that its economy has been growing at a high rate for the last few years, and that oil was recently discovered. After being here for a little bit, and thinking about this tro-tro ride, I am wondering if this is part of that culture as well.”

“Very much so. Though the traffic can get really awful in Santa Cruz, backups caused by a broken down public transit vehicle are rare, and when on the bus, even on the way to campus in the morning, it seems a bit more spacious,” I offer.

“Why do they use minibuses here, instead of the kind of buses we have in the States? It would seem like fewer busses that carry more people would be more efficient than more busses that carry less,” you inquire.

“Well, for one thing the minibuses are privately owned. There’s very little in the way of a public transit system ran by the government,” I explain. Elaborating some more, I go on: “I recently read a piece by Magnus Quarshie who explained that because the public transit is privatized here, the thousands of individual owners compete fiercely for their passengers, and he used this term called ‘penny wars,’ in which he described the owners barely making enough to pay their bills. They never have enough money for important things like depreciation of routine maintenance of their vehicles, and the necessary repairs are done as cheaply as possible.” (Quarshie 2007:106).

“Wow, at first I thought the tro-tro system was efficient. I mean, there were like three of them back at the campus wanting us to board their vehicles. But it seems that this comes at a price, because the safety of passengers and the reliability of service is severely impacted.”

Chuckling, I reply, “I used to think that the tro-tro system was efficient as well. In America, I was always told that the free market, that private industry was the best way to handle public services. I almost believed it, but then I came here and saw the transit system which is almost entirely run by private owners.”

We slowly inch forward. The traffic congestion is chronic, but our Ghanaian passengers are calm. Nobody is in a hurry. Eventually, we make it past the tro-tro. It broke down not too far ahead of us. The white minibus, battered and rusted, had big yellow text reading, “Be Patient,” on its back window. It was stuffed full of passengers. The driver is at the front of the vehicle, under the bonnet, trying to coax his mechanical steed back to life.

Sitting in the back of a tro-tro

A thought comes to me about development. I turn to you, saying, “You’ve probably heard about the development aid funding that America, Europe and China has given to Africa as well as other countries in the Global South, right?”

“Yeah, not a whole heck of a lot, but it seems that Africa can never get its act together. I mean, we’ve been giving them money for decades, but much of the continent is in dire straights. Ghana looks a little better off with its highways and cars, but even so I can see how there’s a culture of poverty here,” you answer.

“Well, I’ve encountered some interesting arguments since coming here that addresses what you just said – particularly that part about Africa never seeming to get its act together, and also about your perception of cars and highways as signs of development.”

You look at me quizzically – “What do you mean? Aren’t cars and roads needed for a good economy?”

“Indeed, yes, but think about this: what exactly is development? Why is development nearly always talked about in terms of economics, of rises in GDP and such? Also, what about this concept of car ownership? Sure, lots of people in America own cars, but those who do not have hardship because of the way our cities are planned. That author I mentioned earlier, Quarshie, said car ownership here is about 5 per cent of the population” (2007:108). I go on: “But, in the end, like in much of America, the infrastructure here is planned around the automobile, and that it seems the people who are doing the planning all drive cars” (Quarshie 2007:113).

“So there’s a car culture here, despite most people not having their own vehicles. How strange,” you observe.

I reply, saying, “yes, I think that along with Western aid money and technology, that culture, particularly consumerism, and its symbols of success such as car ownership, have been imported here.” I continue, “In fact, I read this other book by Professor Dzorgbo, who is in the sociology department here. He makes a solid argument about development, in that the donors are the dominant actors in the aid relationship, and that along with controlling the money, the West also controls the discussion of what constitutes development. This made sense to me, because when I read his argument, which was based on Michelle Foucault’s theory of power knowledge, I realized that even my own thinking of what constitutes development has been heavily influenced and shaped by the West” (Dzorgbo 2012:2). “Wow, I never thought of it like that. So you’re saying that the Ghanaians, and perhaps other countries in the Global South who are aid recipients have not been asked to give their ideas on what is development?”

“Exactly. We constantly hear that private investment, and that measures promoting it in the Third World are the answer. Frequently, we are shown images of poverty in the media, and many are moved by such to justify what the activities of the aid agencies. In Fact, that same professor addressed this by claiming that persistent poverty in the Global South serves an important purpose because it gives the donor countries, and their citizens something to contrast for their wealth to, and that in doing so, creates justification for the Western idea of development” (Dzorgbo 2012:2).

Some construction happening. This site was on the campus and I didn’t see anyone working here the entire time I was there.

Our tro-tro passes by Accra Mall. There are some high-rise buildings on the right, and one of them is being worked on. A crane is hoisting a bundle of building materials to an upper floor. I point out the structure and explain that it’s a hotel. We continue our journey.

There are frequent stops, and we have to get up and get off the tro-tro in order to allow others to get off and get on. At one stop, there is a man sleeping on the sidewalk – his clothes are covered in dirt. Another man in crutches approaches. He is missing a leg. As I step outside the minibus to let people off, the young man hoists himself into the tight confines of the tro-tro by balancing deftly on his crutches. I can see a bit of anxiety on his face as he built up the momentum to swing his body inside. I wondered whether or not he has ever fallen backward while trying this maneuver. We continue on, getting closer to downtown.

The traffic congestion gets intense. It takes almost 20 minutes to get to the end of the street we were on. It’s hot outside, the sounds of vendors, horns, and the noxious smell of exhaust fills the air.

While you are taking in the urban scene, I think about the man with the crutches, and wonder how disabled people are accommodated here. I have yet to see a tro-tro with a wheel chair ramp, but I have seen many Ghanaians who are missing legs, and they are frequently out in the street begging. We get off at Tema station. The crowd is intense. The cacophony is indecipherable. Tema station is a large dirt lot packed with tro-tros, vendors and taxi drivers. We head to the road, and walk past a pristine park that is fenced off. You ask me what that is, and I explain that it’s the memorial park for Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana.

The memorial to Kwame Nkrumah

“I learned some interesting things about Kwame Nkrumah during orientation class,” I said. “He was very concerned with African unity, and he was also an advocate for a centrally-planned economy. He didn’t last very long though because the cocoa price collapsed and the economy followed. Cocoa was the primary export and source of revenue for Ghana, any price fluctuation of that one commodity did a lot of damage to the economy. Nkrumah realized this, and tried to develop a domestic industry that would replace various necessities that are imported, and thus offset the uneven terms of trade. Unfortunately, the economy tanked in 1966, ad he was deposed in a military coup. Ever since then, Ghana has received foreign aid, gone into debt and has been forced to implement economic policies that are dictated from donor agencies like the World Bank and IMF” (2012:6-7).

“Yes, but wasn’t Ghana’s debt forgiven not too long ago?”

“Interesting point, but in order to qualify for this debt forgiveness, Ghana had to declare itself as a Highly Indebted Poor Country. In fact, I saw a film in orientation class that interviewed Ghanaians, asking about what they thought of this debt relief. What I learned was that in order for Ghana’s debt to be cancelled, its monetary policy was essentially taken over by the West” (Andrew 2006).

“So this is interesting. It sounds like the Ghanaian government’s hands are tied, and that the power vacuum in the economy is filled by Westernized private investment interests. On the way here, I saw evidence of this as we passed wooden shacks amidst pristine high-rise buildings.”

shacks near the beach at Jamestown, Accra
View of Southwestern Accra from Jamestown Lighthouse

“Exactly. That professor I was talking about earlier wrote about this as well, in arguing that foreign aid is essentially encapsulated in neoliberal ideology, that is, the recipient government has to get out of the way while their role in the economy is diminished. The threat of being cut off from funding is constant, so Third World governments are rewarded with funding and loans by towing the line” (Dzorgbo 2012:2). I also encountered another professor here in Ghana who wrote about the housing situation. Professor Owusu found that private investment focused more on urban areas than in the rural ones, and that in those areas, real estate developers continually favor building projects that attract the wealthy, most of who are foreigners, and that their buildings, the high-rises you saw, are constructed out of imported materials, further marginalizing potential domestic industry. The end result is that previous occupants of the nearby land are priced out, as their rents increase; they are forced into densely populated and woefully underserved neighborhoods” (Owusu 2013:76).

We have been walking for awhile while having this conversation. Vehicles, motorbikes and cyclists have passed by on the road. The sidewalk comes and goes. Sometimes we have to walk carefully around obstructions whilst watching for oncoming traffic. At times, pedestrians try to cross the road, and you notice the vehicles do not slow down for them, and usually the drivers honk their horns, wanting them to get out of the way.

“Walking down the street here is quite an ordeal. I’m glad it’s daylight out, because if it weren’t,

I probably would have fallen into an open sewer. Also, the drivers here seem to be inconsiderate of the pedestrians, yet I was told time was not money. Why don’t they slow down? What’s the rush?”

“That last question is interesting, and I have given it a lot of though. I am a cyclist, and while staying here, I bought a bicycle. Cycling here is dangerous because motorists will frequently cut me off and not really acknowledge my presence on the road. I think its worse if you’re on foot, actually because at least on a bike you’re moving fast enough to get on the road in a lot of cases, while as a pedestrian, there are frequent hazards and often not a lot of space to navigate.”

“I see, but what explains the attitude of the motorists?” You ask, while wiping the sweat off your brow.

“Yes, it was a bit of a riddle at first, but after thinking about the arguments we have discussed so far, particularly the point made earlier about Ghana being an importer of the consumerist culture and the symbolism that comes with it, I realized that the attitude could be an internalization of the car culture as an expression of power, and the sense of entitlement that comes with it. I’ve observed this phenomena in America, but I think on the roads it is more pronounced in Ghana because the enforcement of any traffic laws is not as prevalent here.”

The Lighthouse at Jamestown, Accra

“So, what you’re saying is that some of the attitudes, and culture even, are not really Ghanaian.” Exactly. Going back to professor Dzorgbo’s argument, Ghana as a recipient in the development aid relationship does not have a say in what constitutes and symbolizes progress, but rather the donors dominate this discourse” (Dzorgbo 2012:2).

“That doesn’t seem just,” you respond, continuing, “it seems that while we are told development is lifting people out of poverty, it is in fact not lifting all boats, and through the current scheme of private investment, the donors seem to be deriving the most benefit, while more Ghanaians are marginalized by real estate projects and cultural attitudes influenced by this power knowledge you speak up that is coming from the rich.”

“My point exactly. In fact, the transportation system with its attendant lack of pedestrian infrastructure and privatized mass transit serve as a concrete example of this marginalization, and the fatality statistics arising out of this lack of fulfilled need drive the point home.”

“Yeah, it seems obvious that a lot of people here get injured and perhaps killed just by commuting,” you observe.

I reply, “there was this article in the economist magazine that highlighted this woeful lack of safety measures and of leaving pedestrians out in the cold. In fact, it said the World Health Organization projected annual vehicle-related fatalities to exceed deaths from HIV / AIDS by 2030, and much of them will be coming from the Global South.”

“Oh wow. That’s pretty high, and alarming!”

“Precisely. What’s really bothersome is that same article pointed out that most of the fatalities are young men, who in Ghana are, or will be the breadwinners for their families, and as a result that family, on top of the grief caused by untimely death, will suffer financial hardship for a long time” (Driving to an Early Grave 2014).

Looking down the stairs of the Jamestown Lighthouse

We arrive by the fort and lighthouse at the entrance to Jamestown. Upon surveying the area, our olfactory sense acclimates to the persistent smell of fish. There are scores of fishing boats, all handcrafted from wood. Many are on the beach, and more are floating out in the ocean. There are countless shacks, makeshift wooden structures that are housing this population. While there is electricity here, there are no paved roads. Housing in this area, it seems has been reduced to the bare minimum of what constitutes a shelter. The residents, all Ghanaian, are very nice. We look at each other, and reflect on the culture of poverty. While through the eyes of a tourist, Jamestown might seem quaint, through the eyes of this student of politics, I see factual evidence that confirms the lofty arguments made by professor Dzorgbo. It would be interesting to know what ideas these people, these Ghanaian residents of Jamestown, whose livelihood is intrinsically linked with the sea, have about development.

Humphrey in Jamestown

We encounter Humphrey, a friendly man who offers to show us around. He is neatly dressed in beach shorts and a polo shirt. He says that he is a teacher for the school in Jamestown, that he has being teaching the children of the fishermen here for six years. “Education is the answer,” Humphrey tells me. Humphrey explains that during the week, every morning at 6, he will go around the village and pick up the kids, bringing them to the school, which is a big shack with three rooms and desks. The structure doubles as a local church on Sundays. Humphrey entices the children to come, by seeing to it that there is free food. The whole system is volunteer-based. Humphrey said that he doesn’t get paid for his efforts, that he tries to teach these kids, along with 5 other volunteer teachers, and in the end they identify their best pupils and work to get them registered with the government education program.

While we find Humphrey’s work in Jamestown to be admirable, we were stunned by the lack of services in this community. In fact, a class that I am taking on management of NGOs, which is being taught by Professor Justice, addresses the role of NGOs, or civil society organizations, in filling the gaps. Professor Justice, during lecture, confirmed my observations when he spoke of areas in Ghana where there is no evidence of government services (Bowley 2014). After my experience in Jamestown, and after reflecting on some Ghanaian arguments in terms of development, I am concerned about the proliferation of NGOs in Ghana that have the potential to act as further transmission points of Western power knowledge. Whenever the politics of development is being discussed, I urge you to consider the point of view coming from the people being developed. It is with these thoughts I will leave you.

Thank you for coming along with me on this imaginary journey. You may have more questions after our discussion. I invite you to make your journey to Ghana a real one in an effort to answer those questions. It will be worth it, I promise.

Fishing Boats in Jamestown
A spectacular sunset on Northern Ghana

Curiosity, that is, the desire to have a more holistic world-view was what drove me to come here. In the end, I got to see both sides of the development relationship, for I was inculcated on the donor side, and now have the opportunity to study on the recipient side. The differences in perception are stark; I will never think of development in the same way. In the interest of promoting social justice, I think we need to ask the citizens and governments of the recipient countries what they need, and in turn do what we can to contribute toward fulfilling that need while looking out after our interests, of course. As a student of politics, I think there may still be room for private investment in terms of development, but after my experiences here, the ideology surrounding private investment needs to play a minor role in the creation of development ideas. The evidence suggests that when private investment takes priority, especially in the arena of public service, people who cannot afford to pay are pushed out. In the end, my perception of the world, in terms of those who are rich and those who are poor has shifted: those in wealth and those in poverty are not separate per se, but rather, they are intrinsically linked.


Andrew, Deroy Kwesi, dir.
Damned by Debt Relief, Ghana’s Current Economic Woes & Development Challenges.

Bowley, Justice
2014 Lecture presented at the Management of NGOs, University of Ghana, August 24.

Driving to an Early Grave
2014 The Economist, January 25. countries-have-cut-deaths-and-injuries-caused-crashes-toll-growing, accessed May 9, 2014.

Dzorgbo, Dan-Bright
Foriegn Aid and Ghana: Power Dynamics of Partnership in Development. Institute for Democratic Governance, 1201E Accra: Ghana Universities Press.

Enrolment and Graduation Statistics
N.d., accessed September 14, 2014.

Financial Aid Statistics
N.d., accessed September 14, 2014.

Gavua, Kodzo
2014 Ghana’s Rich Ancient History and Current Realities. Lecture presented at the Ghana Society and Culture, University of Ghana, July 30.

Owusu, George
Housing the Urban Poor in Metropolitan Accra, Ghana: What Is the Role of the State in the Era of Liberalization and Globalization? In Alternative Development: Unravelling Marginalization, Voicing Change. Piers M. Blaikie and Michael Jones, eds. Farnham, Surrey, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Quarshie, Magnus
Integrating Cycling in Bus Rapid Transit System in Accra. In Highway and Urban Environment Pp. 103-116. Springer, 1, accessed September 7, 2014.