03.06.2003 Feature Article

Poverty in the midst of plenty

By Press
Poverty in the midst of plenty
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Ebo Quansah for Public Agenda The market is no playground for HIPC-ridden Ghanaians these days. The cost of every conceivable item is rising and doing so at such a frightening pace that makes one wonder whether inflation, currently listed in the 20s bears any relation to the reality on the ground. I am still recovering from the price shock that nearly knocked the senses out of my mind when I went shopping for local food items at the Kaneshie Market last week.

A tuber of yam cost c20,000, three fingers of Apem are listed at c5,000, and the mother of all shocks, three tomatoes exchanged for c15,000. The cost of pepper could make the stomach cringe. Ask for fish or meat and the price could induce a headache.

Imported goods like clothing, shoes and electrical items, necessary for a peaceful family life, carry a king's ransom.

We are slowly reaching the stage when the housewife would need a basket to carry the local currency to the market. The bad news for minimum wage earners is that there is no indication that the price rise has will abated soon. If anything at all, the lean season has not reached its peak yet. Indications are that there are more price rises on the cards before the harvest season in July and August.

During the harvest season last year, the Minister of Food and Agriculture Courage Courage Quashigah told Ghanaians that his ministry was buying and stock-pilling food to be released into the system in the lean season. What happened to that lofty idea?

If the food bunkers are still full, it is about time the contents are released to ease the burden of Ghanaians.

These are certainly not the best of times for the wage earner. If you are on ¢9,200 a day, it takes quite some doing to survive the hurricane currently blowing over the market.

If you have problems with the growing number of beggars on the street, visit the market and you would have the answer ready made. A growing number of people are simply unable to afford the basic necessities of life. Begging is the natural course of action to many.

The other day, while driving through the Graphic Road in Accra, I was accosted by a decently dressed lady begging for alms. When I asked why she had reduced herself into a destitute, her answer set me thinking. Mewura, Enye Mea O. Abrabo No Mu Aye Den. Minni Boafo Biara. (Master, it is not I. Life is difficult and I have nobody to fend for me.)

Life in Ghana is not for the faint-hearted. The economic squeeze is biting hard at people's ability to lead honest lives. I was reading one of the private dailies the other day, when my attention was drawn to a very interesting story from Kumasi about a self-styled man of God who was apologizing to authorities at Komfo Anokye Hospital, for claiming that he had spiritually removed a surgical knife abandoned in a woman's stomach by the hospital medical team who had earlier performed an operation on her.

The pastor's claim was false.

But why would a man of God lie about his pastoral duties? The answer is simple. Most of those parading as reverend ministers and performing miracles are fraudulent characters. They have only found loopholes in the Ghanaian's propensity to seek miracles when times are hard.

If false prophets are many, the answer could be traced to the hardship in society and people's crave to avoid it.

The situation is not aided by stories doing the rounds that a number of state institutions have not paid their workers for two or three months. It looks like this society is fast approaching the situation in our next-door neighbours who are sometimes six months in arrears with their wage payments.

Quite recently, the Conference of Heads of Schools threatened to close down their institutions because government was about two terms in arrears of state subsidy to second cycle institutions.

Alarm bells are slowly ringing that revenue is unable to match expenditure and puts all of us on notice to try and find a way out.

What economic indicators so far suggest is that the state has not been able to manage the economy properly. The Government has a huge burden to try and arrest the situation. I will like to be told a bold plan of action to arrest the situation. If revenue does not match expenditure, then we are on the slippery road to economic doom.

I do not believe the best means of arresting the situation is by getting visiting dignitaries come to praise an economy that cannot cater for the citizenry.

I believe the time has come for the government to lay bare the simple facts about the economy. I have read time and again about state revenue collectors like the Internal Revenue Service, the Customs, Excise and Preventive Service, Value Added Tax Secretariat etc, trumpeting to the high heavens their wonderful achievement of exceeding their target collections. If more than necessary are collected, how come we are unable to cater for ourselves, which tells much about our propensity to overspend.

I will like to believe the state could trim down its expenditure, many of which do not cater for projects.

I am aware of the strenuous efforts being made by government to rebuild the run-down infrastructure and which takes chunks of trenches of cash generated from within. But it is also a fact of life that while the strenuous economic strain is taking a toll on the standard of living of the ordinary man, there is a lot of waste that go on unchallenged.

As I write this piece, companies collecting refuse in the city have given notice of their intention to stop collecting refuse in the capital with effect from the night of Friday, May 30, 2003. They have not been paid for a considerable length of time now.

The health hazard posed to the already hard-up Ghanaian cannot be quantified. We are approaching crisis point on all fronts of the national economy.

I have always held the view that the most effective means of solving the riddle is for the Government to take the people on board in its difficult choices. Many Ghanaians will appreciate the need to sacrifice better if they are convinced that the managers of the state economy are sacrificing as well. I still do not appreciate the need for ministers of state to drive around the country with policemen opening and closing their car doors.

The nation will do with a reduction in imported food items, for instance. That is why I am disappointed that under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the Government is contemplating removing the extra duty imposed on imported poultry and rice, for instance. The reason given of encouraging consumption of local rice and poultry is as valid today as it was first announced in this year's budget.

We need the IMF and the World Bank to bail us out of our difficulties. But I do not buy the idea that they should dictate what is not practicable in societies those officials come from to us to swallow hook and sinker.

I believe too that the time has come for Ghanaians ourselves to change our attitude to state property. We still treat things belonging to the state as if they are not worth preserving. I was alarmed by a story published in an Accra independent daily on Wednesday, in which some unscrupulous characters in and around Keta are putting the Keta Sea Defence Project into jeopardy. According to the story, some sand contractors are winning sand from the project site and thus ruining the $84 million project aimed at rescuing the people from the hazards of the sea.

I will like to believe someone in authority will call the people to order. In the first place, the police in Keta should be empowered to arrest the intruders to be dealt with according to the laws of the land. The subversion of the project should be a crime that should attract the stiffest of penalties.

There are many other areas of national life, where activities of Ghanaians continue to cause serious financial and material loss to this nation. If we are to win the economic war, we have to brace ourselves for very tough decisions. We cannot afford to continue to be hungry and poor, when a few prudent decisions coupled with vigilance could bail us out of our predicament.

In some parts of the world, the state makes it possible for citizens to feed themselves, have roofs over their heads, attend to medical care without selling family wares and have their children attending school. We may not get to this situation overnight. But as the Chinese say, a journey of over a thousand miles begins with the first step. We cannot afford to continue to be hungry in the midst of plenty.

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