Reflections on Ghana

I came away from my week in Ghana with 3 major impressions: #1 tremendous achievement and passion, #2 significant resources, and #3 many, many questions.

I was very impressed by the achievements and passion of many Ghanians in the face of many obstacles. One of the primary obstacles they seem to face is the lack of stable electricity and Internet access. An MIT Sloan alumni that we met with told me that in 2015, Ghana experienced power outages 2/3 of the time. Beyond this, transportation and logistics are complicated, due to lack of addresses, roads in some places, and other infrastructure. Where there is a road, there’s usually a lot of traffic. One of the entrepreneurs we met with had originally wanted to do a gift-delivery service aimed at enabling expats to easily send gifts to family members back home. He was stymied, however, by just trying to find the locations for delivery, not too mention trying to ensure timely delivery. Flowers were wilted and chocolate was melted by the time they arrived! Yet, in spite of the many obstacles, I was impressed by what Ghanians are accomplishing. Ashesi University is on a barely passable road, but it’s delivering very high quality college educations for young Africans. The enterpreneur I mentioned is working on creating a gift card system that expats can use instead.

In terms of resources, Ghana has many. I observed a beautiful coastline with lovely warm water; fertile soil; a very sunny, warm climate excellent for growing many plants; passionate, friendly people who never seem to sit still despite the heat; relatively flat geography, and many mineral resources as well. In trying to understand Ghana’s development, I kept in mind that Ghana has been independent fewer than 60 years from the British Empire. Further, in the 1980’s, Ghana suffered a severe economic depression. Given the level of resources that Ghana has, I am hopeful that Ghanians will have the opportunity to do much in the next few decades to increase their GDP and the overall standard of living within the country. I am also hopeful that Ghanians will get to do this in Ghana-specific ways. We met with the superintendent of Accra’s public schools, and I was very inspired by his perspective on what Ghana’s needs are and how its people can address them in Ghana-specific ways.

Lastly, I left with many, many questions, particularly trying to compare my experience of life as an American and what life might be like for a Ghanian – and how to divorce my ingrained assumptions and expectations as an American of a certain socioeconomic background from this comparison. For example, what is an acceptable minimum standard of living? I had never seen slums made of shacks and shipping containers before, that I can recall.  Some of my questions: what made these slums?  Is it the size of the habitation?  Is it the lack of access to formal infrastructure like running water and sewers?  Is it the lack of space for designated areas, appliances, and furniture for cooking, washing, eating, etc.?  We might not have shack cities in the US, but what about the state of our apartments in our cities, particularly in places like Detroit?  And, beyond just the comparison, what are the implications for change?

The same thing goes for sewers and drains. We stayed at a lovely coastal resort that had what I would be inclined to call “open” drains although they were mostly closed in. These drains drained onto the beautiful beach that we were sitting on, which is typical in Ghana. In the towns and cities, there were a mixture of what I assume are “open” sewers, with some kind of covering, and truly open sewers. On the one hand there are the health risks, which are very important; on the other, where does installing a sewage system like an American city has fall in the lineup of development projects for Ghanian cities? Also, is an American-style sewage system even the right choice for a place like Ghana that is very hot, subject to frequent torrential downpours, and mostly at sea level?

I’m still not sure exactly the right way to answer these questions (or even ask them!) – and I am not sure that there is a right way.  It seems like a lot of the discourse around working in developing countries has been towards a re-examination of assumptions about what’s useful and what’s not useful.  But, one thing I do know, I appreciate very much having the opportunity to ask these kinds of questions based on personal experiences, and I am very inspired by the Ghanians that we met who are working very hard towards answering these questions on their own behalf!

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