Replicating Accra: Keep it Simple Stupid

Thursday, March 17, 2011

By J. Atsu Amegashie, University of Guelph, Canada

It is instructive to note that on a recent TV program in the USA, Brazil’s former president, Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva (2003 -2011), said that "The success of an elected official is in the art of doing what is obvious. It is what everyone knows needs to be done but some insist on doing differently.”

A few days ago, Nana Akuffo-Addo, the NPP’s presidential candidate, stated that his party can transform Ghana’s economy in a decade through a comprehensive program of industrialization and modernization. According to him, Ghana’s "… newfound wealth presents an additional opportunity for a visionary leader with a programme to take critical steps to transform our economy." In response, Franklin Cudjoe, Executive Director of IMANI Center for Policy and Education, said that "Ghana does not need a visionary leader but rather effective leadership to develop the nation. We don’t need any vision; we already know the problems, just work at it." In fact, Nana Addo mentioned Brazil as a country that had transformed its economy within a short period. It is instructive to note that on a recent TV program in the USA, Brazil’s former president, Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva (2003 -2011), said that "The success of an elected official is in the art of doing what is obvious. It is what everyone knows needs to be done but some insist on doing differently.”

The NDC government has responded to Nana Addo’s claim with a policy named the “Coordinated Programme of Economic and Social Development Policies, 2010 – 2016: An Agenda for Shared Growth and Accelerated Development for a Better Ghana." In response to both parties, the Director of Communication of the CPP, William Dowokpor said that the NDC and NPP do not know how to transform the economy. According to the CPP "… by their 30 year combined record, it is accurate to conclude that transforming Ghana has never been truly contemplated by NDC/NPP. All they have done for the past generation is to … tell Ghanaians why the economy cannot be transformed, usually blaming each other for emptying the state coffers before leaving office.":

Ideally, we want an effective leader with a vision, a special vision that most of us lack. Some may even say that you cannot have an effective but visionless leader. I do not intend to engage in this debate. My goal in this piece is to KISS the problem of development: Keep It Simple Stupid.  Since independence, we have had many development plans (e.g., Kutu Acheampong’s five-year development plan in the 1970s). We have a good idea of what must be done. We can, therefore, make do with an effective leader who has a vision (a plan) that is not special (i.e., does what everyone knows what must be done) and whose "yea is yea, and nay is nay". This is consistent with the sentiments expressed by Franklin Cudjoe and President Lula of Brazil.

In December 1994, Paul Krugman of Princeton University, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs titled "The myth of Asia’s miracle."

The abstract read as follows:

"Pundits point to the awesome growth of East Asia’s economies and fret that the West cannot compete. But there is nothing miraculous about the successes of Asia’s "tigers." Their rise was fueled by mobilizing resources – increasing inputs of machinery, infrastructure, and education – just like that of the now-derided Soviet economy."

In the main text, he continued:

"A man with a bulldozer can dig a ditch faster than one with only a shovel, but he is not more efficient; he just has more capital to work with … Mere increases in inputs, without an increase in the efficiency with which those inputs are used–investing in more machinery and infrastructure–must run into diminishing returns; input-driven growth is inevitably limited. … The newly industrializing countries of Asia, like the Soviet Union of the 1950s, have achieved rapid growth in large part through an astonishing mobilization of resources (i.e., machinery, infrastructure, education, buildings, roads, and so on). This achievement seems to be a kind of economic miracle. But the miracle turns out to have been based on perspiration rather than inspiration …"

Krugman’s views have been challenged by many scholars. Without going into this debate, it suffices to note that perspiration-induced growth (i.e., growth that is achieved through the mobilization and judicious use of resources) is better than "no growth": "perspiration without inspiration" is better than "no perspiration." Let’s "keep it simple stupid". Will our leaders, at least, perspire even if they cannot inspire?

Commenting on Singapore’s performance between 1966 and 1990, Paul Krugman observed that "The employed share of the population surged from 27 to 51 percent. The educational standards of that work force were dramatically upgraded: while in 1966 more than half the workers had no formal education at all, by 1990 two-thirds had completed secondary education. Above all, the country had made an awesome investment in physical capital: investment as a share of output rose from 11 to more than 40 percent."

To put the above information in context, I checked Singapore’s population in 1966 and 1990. According to Singapore’s Department of Statistics, the country’s population was 1,934,400 in 1966 and 3,047,100 in 1990. Based on the aforementioned data on the employed share of the population and the proportion of the labor force with secondary school education, simple calculations show that between 1966 and 1990 the number of workers in Singapore who had completed secondary school increased by more than an astounding 293% which was several times greater than the increase of  57.5% in the total population; a very, very impressive perspiration!!! Other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea also had similar levels of "perspiration". What we do not seem to appreciate is that even doing the obvious things, as President Lula says, is not easy. It requires a lot of perspiration. As the Nigerian musican, P-Square, sang "E no easy." Our apparent lack of willingness to perspire perhaps explains why we keep going round in circles.  Perspiration means we should spend less time watching TV in our offices,  less time burying the dead, and less time at all-night prayer meetings.

Compared to several cities of the world, the city of Accra is certainly not a great city. There are slums in Accra, the air is polluted, traffic is very heavy, the supply of water and electricity is erratic, accommodation is scarce, etc. Yet most, if not all, Ghanaians will admit that Ghana will be a better and prosperous country if we can replicate Accra in every town and village. Replicating Accra does not require any special knowledge because we know how to do it; we built Accra. The British also played an important role.  However, no one will argue that we don’t have the knowledge to replicate Accra all over Ghana. What we seem to lack is the desire and ability to perspire. I am not suggesting that Accra should be taken off our development agenda. Far from it. There is still work to be done in Accra. It is important to note that by replicating Accra, I mean investment in public goods or goods that have significant positive externalities (e.g., law and order, an efficient civil service, roads, hospitals, schools, libraries, infrastructure for power supply and telecommunications, etc).

On an assignment in Ghana in 2008, my friends were excited to show me the new mall in town, the Accra Mall. I stayed at the African Regency Hotel (popularly known as Hotel Kuffuor) which was only a two-minute walk from the mall, but did not bother to go to one of the trendy spots in town. My reaction was "so Accra has a mall; what’s the big deal. That should be expected. It is the capital city of a country as big as Ghana." In my view, a mall at places like Nsawam, Keta, or Juaso woud have been newsworthy and cause for excitement. I would have driven to these places just to see the mall. Perhaps, my world is different because my little "village" in Canada with a population of only 120,000 has three malls. Am I being snotty? I don’t think so. I want more for Ghana. Why can’t we perspire (mobilize our physical and human resources) and, at the minimum, replicate Accra over all of Ghana? In 2007, when a friend asked someone in the village how he felt about the Ghana@50 celebrations, the person retorted "you mean Accra@50?". Real development comes from spreading the benefits of growth to other parts of a country. That will also decongest Accra.

We cannot replicate Accra when, according our Vice President, John Mahama, 4000 primary schools are under trees. A nation is as good as the human beings in it.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste.  In our part of world, most people who end up in teacher training colleges are those who did not do well in high school (e.g., could not gain admission to sixth form) or  attended public schools with a lower quality of education.  Almost none of our best goes to teacher training colleges. According to a recent article that appeared at, less than 1% of school children want to be teachers. I am not trying to look down on teachers or those who attended public schools in Ghana. On the contrary, I belive that we need to bring honor to the profession of teaching and pay teachers well while setting high performance standards for them. I once asked my Canadian colleagues to name the most honorable professions in Canada. The top four were school teachers, police, judges, and doctors.

We need to significantly increase our investment in human capital, especially in technical/vocational education. It appears that  our universities and other educational institutions are not producing good a quality labor force. On the success of the East Asian Tigers’ industrialization policies, Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and former world bank chief economist, reiterated the importance of an educated labor force, when he noted, among others, that "… the support for education — particularly engineering and science education — provided an intellectual infrastructure that facilitated technological transfer." Perspiration, perspiration, perspiration.

The question before us is not "how do we replicate Accra"  but rather "why have we not been able to replicate Accra". We know what to do. Why haven’t we done it? Replicating Accra requires the mobilization and judicious use of resources. Because of corruption, we have not been able to significantly mobilize resources and in cases where we have been able to do so, we have not used the resources judiciously. To perspire, we must significantly reduce corruption and release resources into socially beneficial investments. We cannot mobilize resources at the rates of the East Asian Tigers if a significant proportion of our resources is used for private consumption.

To replicate Accra, we must decentralize power and resources away from the central  government. For the umpteenth time, let me join the chorus of well-meaning Ghanaians who want district chief executives (DCEs) to be elected. Let’s replicate Accra by allowing the people in the villages and towns to choose their local governments.

I agree with Nana Akuffo-Addo that our newly found wealth (oil) offers an opportunity to transform the economy. However, we need to demonstrate that we can do simple and obvious tasks. If not, why do we think that we can do more difficult tasks? At the minimum, let’s replicate Accra, so that the sick in Tamale do not have to travel all the way to Accra for an CT scan or for minor medical procedures. Let’s replicate Accra, so a child in Tain does not have to go to school under a tree. Let’s replicate Accra, so that an able-bodied man or woman in Kwabeng, Ajumako, Nandom, Whuti, Sekondi, etc is less likely to travel to Accra for greener pastures. Let’s replicate Accra so that a Ghanaian in Cape Coast, Ejisu, or Wa would not have to travel to Accra to get a passport. Kwame Nkrumah replicated an aspect of Accra by building secondary schools all over Ghana.

In a recent article titled "Kafo didi: living large but producing very little", I admonished that "We, the people, have to respect and honor those who lead a modest life and work hard; we should not glorify theft. We are part of the problem."  In replicating Accra, Ghanaians can be part of the solution by paying their taxes and contributing to nation-building. Those shirking their tax obligations by hiding in the informal economy make it difficult to replicate Accra. However, people are less likely to engage in tax evasion if they can trust the government to use their taxes for the benefit of the society and not to line the pockets of politicians and bureaucrats. Therefore, our leaders must govern responsibly and thereby honor the social contract between the state and its citizens. In addition, they must put in place the structures and systems that make it easy to collect taxes.  That requires a lot of perspiration. It is the job of the state to collect taxes AND use the revenue responsibly.

As we replicate Accra, we shall end up creating multiple linkages among the various towns and villages through a skilled and educated labor force, employment opportunities, transportation, trade, communication, etc. These linkages and the response of our resourceful enterpreneurs in the private sector to the opportunities created by replicating Accra will lead to synergetic effects (including industrialization) wherein the whole (Ghana) is bigger than the sum of its parts (all the clones of Accra).  If the government perspires by creating an enabling environment for our enterpreneurs and us all, we shall also perspire because we know that we will enjoy the fruits of our perspiration. If that happens, perspiration would have led to inspiration and we would have killed two birds with a stone.

For real and holistic development, we cannot cut corners. It’s not an easy road. We have to sweat; oh sorry, I mean we have to perspire.