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08.03.2004 Feature Article

Why We Remain Poor

Why We Remain Poor
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There is nothing particularly complex or mystifying about why we remain poor in this country, despite decades of trying to “develop”. In fact, the causes of our poverty and its persistence are so simple and easy to identify that this simplicity may have led us to concentrate on the proverbial forest to the exclusion of the trees that make that forest. The following random events should provide some insights for anyone who ever wonders why remain poor. There is a store in Accra where drinks, including bottled water, are sold, or are supposed to be sold. In nine out of 10 times when I ask for bottled water, the answer is invariably the same: “It is finished.” When I ask why they don't maintain stocks, again the answer is always the same: “I've already told madam that the water is finished, but she hasn't bought any.” On those rare occasions when “there is” water, it is locked up in the storeroom and madam, who is never there, has the keys! Think of how much money this “madam” is losing not only from bottled water but other items that should be readily available but aren't because she just doesn't give a damn At the end of the month, she may discover that her costs are much higher than they should be and profits lower; she clearly is not doing as well as she should. In typical Ghanaian fashion, she would blame anything and everybody but herself. “Spiritual forces” would come in for special attention and, for a solution, her “pastor”, who invariably will blame her mother, who invariably is a witch that only the pastor can exorcise, will be called in. For his “divine” work, the pastor of course will charge a “fee”, which further reduces her financial welfare, but she doesn't see it as such. The pastor is only doing God's work, the cost be damned. Ignorance, as Shakespeare would say, is bliss. · There is an internet café at the petrol station where I usually buy my petrol and have my car washed. For the past several months, I have consistently and purposely asked if I could print something that I found on the internet, and the answer has always been “no”. The reason is that the “printer is not working.” When would it be fixed, I ask? “Soon,” the café attendant tells me with a broad smile, completely oblivious to the fact that whatever he and his boss earn from the café is lower than what it otherwise would be if only they would get their act together. Consider, for instance, the amount of money they lose on a daily basis from customers like me over weeks, months, and years, and you understand why we are poor in this country. Lower income, even for a relatively successful petrol station owner, means less money to move about in the economy, create jobs and incomes, and help reduce the number of people living in poverty. In better-organised societies, to tell a customer, even once, that you don't have something that you should have is considered a mark of shame, evidence of personal failure. In Ghana, disappointing the customer seems to be a very normal part of doing business. And it is done with no shame. Of course, public the sector with not without its own managerial foibles. · Once, when I kept getting an engaged tone on my telephone even though the line was not in use, I braved Accra's dreadful traffic to the offices of Ghana Telecom at Achimota. I was very relieved when the very first office I spotted had the sign, “Manager, Faults”, on it. With a broad smile, the manager welcomed me and offered me a seat. Upon hearing my problems, he responded: “Hmm, my brother, I have the same problem, oh.” I was dumbstruck, so I asked him to repeat what he said and he obliged me, gladly. (Think of walking into the consulting room at Korle Bu with food poisoning and listening to your doctor tell you that he has food poisoning, too!) After explaining the technical causes of the problem, the faults manager even showed me a telephone he had decommissioned because it had similar dial-tone problems. So when would the problem be fixed, I asked, still incredulous. “Soon,” he replied, “soon…” Imagine the number of businesses losing money because the “Manager, Faults,” would only fix the problem “soon” – whatever that means. · During a visit of some friends from the U.S. a few years ago, I decided to call a local restaurant and make reservations ahead of time because we were many. Naturally, I called directory assistance at Ghana Telecom for the telephone number of the restaurant. First, the phone rang without any response until it terminated itself. When I tried again, it was engaged. Finally, I got a human voice on the other end who put me on hold for a while only to come back and ask me to “call back tomorrow” because she couldn't find the number I wanted. Shocking but true. The entire country seems to be one huge joke, only it's not funny. I could perhaps write an entire book on these “little” things that have obviously large implications for national development and yet remain largely ignored. No matter how much government spends on “poverty reduction”, it would take a radical shift in cultural attitudes to bring meaningful, substantial and equitable development to this country. More telephone lines or better roads by themselves would never develop this country, anymore than more computers without steady electricity would bring that much-vaunted “revolution” in information technology. The whole framework for national development will have to change. We will have to look beyond economic factors and seriously consider non-economic factors of our economic problems. These non-economic factors may yet hold the key to that “development” that has eluded us for so long – way too long, for a country that only half a century ago showed so much promise. Writer is a consultant currently residing in Ghana Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Isaac Nii-Moi Thompson
Isaac Nii-Moi Thompson, © 2004

The author has 11 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: IsaacNiiMoiThompson

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