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Opinions of Thursday, 3 November 2011

Columnist: Tsikata, Prosper Yao

The Tragedies of African Democracies - XIII

The Tragedies of African democracies: why the best doesn’t mean good

The Unemployment Crisis cont…

The NPP government realized very early in its first term in office that job creation is not a matter of mobilizing the unemployed in the streets and creating office spaces and dumping them in. First the unemployed must have employable skills, if they do not have them. Then those skills must be relevant to the needs of the market. There must also be a natural progression of the economy towards growth that will create natural openings for skills required by this natural growth.

Put another way, if you employ people to sweep the streets of Accra and call it National Youth Employment Program (NYEP), then there must be an understanding that these individuals are not performing income generating tasks. Instead, they are rendering services that require financial resources generated by other sectors of the economy to ensure their salaries are paid at the end of each month. If the general economic environment has not improved to a point where other sectors of the economy can conveniently support these new paychecks through taxation, there is obviously an enforced opening of the economy and these new jobs can only be sustainable as long as Father Christmas is still in town.

On the other hand, if the large tracts of arable lands across the country could be used to engage unskilled youths in productive agricultural ventures, they would be feeding a hungry population whereby these farms could generate employment through the selling of the farm produce for a direct income. Even in the service sector, the private sector provides an ample evidence of what services can create sustainable jobs without putting undue pressure on the economy. By way of example, due to the relatively stable political environment prevalent in Ghana, the country has attracted students from around the sub-region and beyond. The quest for education among its own citizens has always been amazing. As Ghanaians strive to acquire higher education, they are constrained by lack of infrastructure and financial resources; this makes the competition for a place even keener for other sub-regional candidates in her higher educational institutions. In response to this, the private sector has ventured into the educational sector, providing education to meet the shortfalls that the state cannot provide with its limited resources.

The point is that wherever these educational institutions are established, jobs are created around these institutions. There is need for shops that would vend consumables and other basic necessities to students and faculty, students also need accommodation and recreational facilities around these institutions. What about the administrative and academic jobs created by these institutions? This is where the private sector has been vital in responding to these economic needs and creating an economy around these institutions of higher learning. In this regard, there is that natural opening of the economy even at the service level.

It is believed that the service sector in Ghana is fast expanding. A phenomenon some observers see as very positive to economic development. But the truth remains that there is an order of things when it comes to the economy. Economic history suggests that countries with successful economic development models did not get there overnight. There is a clear pattern that drives economic development. In the 1880s, about 90% of the labor in the US worked on farms. Today, however, less than 3% of the US population is employed on farms and is at the same time able to feed the US population with a surplus that is exported to the rest of the world in the form of aid and other economic ventures.

This decrease in farm labor did not result in a decrease in productivity or output; rather, it has resulted in an increase in productivity by a million fold. According to the Clarke-Fisher’s hypothesis, labor migrates from high productivity, low value portions of the economy to low productivity, high value portions of the economy. Value is largely determined by supply and demand. This migration of labor goes through three successive stages –agriculture, manufacturing and services – to maturation. Almost all western economies went through these successive transformations in their economies.

It is interesting how the Asian tigers and other emerging global economic powers have been able to leapfrog these successive stages or, at best, made them happen in a short time without going through the long duels of all the successive stages that required maturation at all levels, giving way gradually to the next stage.

Even in the developed economies, the transformation of agriculture did not happen overnight on the back of cutlasses and hoes; rather, this transformation happened on the back of manufacturing, which concomitantly gave way to mechanization of agriculture. So about 3% of the population can feed a country and export the surplus not by “working hard” as we understand it in Ghana, but by working smart. Examples abound in the Americas, where large tracts of lands are cultivated with heavy machinery.

Similarly, the manufacturing industry provided the platform for the takeoff of the service industry. All the technologies and apparatus that empowered the service industry are contingent on technologies provided by the manufacturing industry. Heavy agricultural machinery which provides the foundation for increases in food production is powered by the manufacturing sector. A GPS system that enables a taxi driver to gauge his destination with efficiency is empowered by space technology. The number of computers and technologies of the sort - on which the service industry is built – are creations of the manufacturing industry. So it has been quite easy for emerging economies such as China, India, South Korea, among others, to leapfrog the tortuous path toward manufacturing and the final fruition of that process – the service industry – once they mastered the empowering technologies.

In our case in Ghana, labor migrates on patronage. This migration departs from unemployment to employment that is enforced, creating distortions in the national economy, making the so-called service sector that is seen to be expending to be nothing but a fluke. Though Ghana is regarded as an agrarian society – with about 60% of the population involved in agriculture, the country is unable to feed itself or achieve food sufficiency. Understandably, over 90% of Ghana’s agricultural production depends on intensive manual labor with the use of cutlass and hoe to till tracts of lands.

Another bold attempt by the NPP at job creation had been the Presidential Special Initiatives (PSIs as they were referred to). The PSIs, similar to the NYEP, were initiated to provide thousands of jobs to young unemployed people and also provide avenues for entrepreneurs who were ready to bell the cat.

Embellished in the euphoria that normally marks the commissioning of government sponsored projects of the sort, the projects took off. Hardly had the jamboree died down and the chips began to fall in place before close observers began to label it as another wild goose chase. These laudable initiatives in textiles and garments, and cassava and starch, had all folded up even before the initiating government’s term of office came to an end. While there have not been any independent evaluations of why these initiatives had failed, they are only mentioned to remind readers of where we have been.

Frustrated as the NPP was, the message took a different turn. Graduates were now to create their own jobs. Young graduates, irrespective of their trainings, and without the necessary collaterals were asked to create their own jobs without addressing issues of how loans are secured from the banks as a start-up capital for the fresh graduates. The drama student, the archeology student, the religion student, the philosophy students, who forms a mammoth number of graduates each year from our universities were all expected to create their own jobs, too. Whether the institutions of training have prepared them for the task of creating jobs, nobody had answered that vital question. Setting up a business no matter how small requires some level of entrepreneurial acumen. This, to some, nature has endowed plentifully. To others, it could be learned and mastered overtime through education or mentorship. But there are many more who are neither investors nor managers, they are simply to be managed and are never managers.

If even projects sponsored by government with taxes could not see the light of day, as in the case of the PSIs, due to reasons we all are aware of – our work culture and little attention to rules of business, for example, receiving kickbacks before contracts are awarded and fixing square pegs in round holes in the name of politics - how would a young graduate who dares venture into this hostile business environment fare with private capital with interest rates hitting the roof, in the event of business failure?

As Ghanaians seek nonexistent opportunities, “the zero sum game” continues. The age-old reward for merit has finally be thrown out through the windows and beneficiaries of these corrupt practices now have the audacity to boast that it is done all over the world and even in America. Arguably, there is networking in America. Ohio University, for instance, has a webpage where alumni in industry who are ready to mentor and connect individuals to industry are networked and publicized. These are categorized according to the various trades and disciplines, ranging from Archeology to Zoology. My last check for the area of communication, public relations, and journalism, revealed over a hundred alumni listing who are ready to do the handholding for students looking for internships and graduating students at the threshold of their careers.

Does this mean that standards are corrupted to get people in through this official network? Would it not imply that the universities even condone this kind of underhand activity? This is where our standards come into question. We seem to imbibe whatever we see from the West without careful attention to how these ideas have evolved and how they are implemented and in the end we corrupt processes with all the good intentions to assist students to find the information they need in order to act.

Indeed, these networks do not mean that recruitment standards are lowered or corrupted to get say James in, because James is a cousin who has just completed university and is unemployed. Having explored this network for the sake of understanding how it works, I realized it is just meant to help people identify the right jobs and also mentor prospective graduating jobseekers to prepare for job related examinations and interviews. It is not meant in any way to lower the bar for unqualified individuals to get in.

At any rate, the Employment Opportunity Act, Institutional Equality and a host of institutional checks and balances pervade the wide gamut of employment seeking avenues, and the individual who has a cause to suspect that there has been any form of manipulation can seek redress as soon as that is discovered. But Ghanaians have the impudence to extol what is criminal with the uninformed justification that “oh, it is done even in the United States of America.”

Today, members of the legislature, ministers of state and other bigwigs in society have become recruitment agents. The ordinary Ghanaian caught up in this state of affairs has no other option than to play along. If you are contesting for a public office, your best bait is to promise nonexistent jobs. Unfortunately, statistics and data are not things that are readily available. Consequently, the voter cannot determine how many jobs were created by an outgoing government and what is feasible with the blueprint of an incoming one.

Therefore, the privileged few, by some stroke of luck, not by dint of hard work, who become the beneficiaries of the corrupt and intractable networks, have no options but to condone the systematic pillaging of the resources of the nation into private pockets. How can you report the corrupt practices of the boss who aided your recruitment when you know too well there are others out there that are more qualified than you are?

In the political equation, the politician does not have to say how he or she intends to create the jobs he or she promises. The candidates soaked this political lesson very fast. All he needed to do was to affirm and reaffirm the fact that his opponent, whom he sought to root out had fail to create the jobs.

There are varied groups of unemployed individuals - the skilled and the unskilled, the literate and the illiterate, the so-called foreign-trained and the locally-trained, the Ashanti and the Ewe, the NPP cardholding member and the NDC cardholding adherent - who are all looking for ways to make a living. Beyond this sodality of the unemployed are the fishing and farming communities, the civil servants and the self-employed, all seeking an opportunity to better their lot in a system that is gradually glossing over the time-tested value of rewarding hard work. Political patronage has distorted the sense of meritocracy, which strengthens the system naturally, as individuals have faith in the system and works towards its rewards without question.

Aside the political hullabaloo about which government created how many jobs and which government did not, it is painful to observe some half-baked so-called recruitment experts also appear on the scene occasionally to make parody of the whole situation. It was contemptuous to read a recent news item to the effect that Dr. Douglas Agyepong, Founder and President of the so-called Leadership and Mentoring Academy, attributed the inability of graduate jobseekers to obtain jobs as being due to their inability to prepare good curricula vitae (CV) to communicate appropriately with prospective employers.

This assertion was preposterous to have come from an acclaimed expert in employment related issues. While it is important that jobseekers pay particular attention to their resumes and cover letters, as they are the interface between them and the employer, that cannot be an excuse for well qualified people not getting jobs. It is time Dr. Agyepong found a more credible way of promoting his company than hiding behind the cloak of poor CVs to promote his company. Does it mean that if all Ghanaian graduates are able to prepare CVs that effectively communicate their skills, competencies, and qualifications, then all of them would get jobs?

Keep tuned in…

The above-title is serialized into 30 articles covering issues of politics, corruption, education, immigration, the economy (Ghanaian economy), unemployment, land tenure, dearth of policy innovation, and stories from the frontlines – Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, ECOWAS and the AU. The series are syndicated and media houses/outlets interested in enriching the national debates in Ghana for the 2012 are free to publish all the series.

By: Prosper Yao Tsikata