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Opinions of Saturday, 16 September 2006

Columnist: Amegashie, J. Atsu

Ghanaian communal values: myth or fact?

I have heard some development experts claim that incorporating African values into development programs is very crucial to the success of these programs. But what really are African values? Or as a Ghanaian, what really are Ghanaian values? Of course, we have a multiplicity of espoused values. However, I shall focus on only one of them.

We have an espoused value of being communal. Indeed, it is true that we have a communal culture. But this only stems from that fact we have very strong interdependent preferences. However, interdependent preferences are not sufficient for good socio-economic outcomes. Interdependent preferences can be negative (i.e., envy, jealousy, undue interference in the affairs of others) or they can be positive (i.e., sympathy, desire to cooperate with others, etc). The ewes call our supposedly communal culture "norviwowo", the Akans call it "onuado" and the Gas call it "anyemifemor".

Let me be clear that what I have in mind is different from the quality of friendliness that most Ghanaians seem to possess. I am not interested in that kind of social interaction. That kind of interaction has some value. It gives people a euphoric feeling, a sense of belonging and a sense of being appreciated. However, it does not put food on the table. My focus is on the kind of social interaction that has to do with the distribution of material resources, consumption goods, and services among individuals. It is related to the response of the community to the economic needs of the poor and the have-nots. Indeed, if you are not taking care of the poor, weak, and less talented, then being friendly should be of secondary importance. Giving me food is much more important than asking me “how are you today?”. That explains why the average Ghanaian, if given the chance, will rather live in the Western world, although people are less friendly in the West than in Ghana. It also explains why the average Westerner would not like to live in Ghana, although Ghanaians are friendlier than Westerners. Give me food, clothing, and shelter first, then ask me “how are you?”.

Our espoused value of being a group of people who care for one another is way different from our actual values (i.e., values in practice or values in use). We all have large extended families, but when push comes to shove, it is only a few reliable ones who help us. If we were really serious about communal love, we would have worked out mutually beneficial arrangements to get us out of poverty. Does the average Ghanaian trust his/her fellow Ghanaian in a business venture? Are the resources of the land and consumption goods distributed equitably consistent with a communal culture?

The way we treat and talk to the weak, poor, less talented, house boys and maids, subordinates at work, etc (in our communities) is at enormous variance with our espoused value of caring for each other. We are just as selfish as other human beings and races across the globe. If you have money, your brothers, sisters and relatives in our society will draw near to you. If you are poor, you hardly see them.

For example, we are taught as kids to invite others to join us if we have some food. But are you really expected to join when you are invited? Haven't you ever been scolded by your mum for eating at auntie D's house? And don't we usually invite others hoping that they will reject our offer? So how real is this value of inviting others to join us for a meal? We see these invitations in our culture and erroneously believe that this practice captures our real character when indeed it is just a facade.

Societies advance based on some mix of communalism and individualism. The espoused communal values of the Japanese are consistent with their actual values. They have used it, through co-operation, to produce wealth and prosperity. We have failed to do so. Therefore, there are legitimate grounds for questioning our supposedly strong communal values and arguing that they may be nothing but cheap talk.

In very small traditional societies, our espoused communal values may have been upheld in practice because it was easier to detect and punish anti-social behavior. Given the growth of communities with thousands and millions of people, the real selfish character of our people became evident since the detection of anti-social behavior was much more difficult. Indeed, theoretical, empirical, and experimental studies show that it is much easier to sustain co-operation in smaller groups than in bigger groups.

If the external environment (e.g., urban setting or rural setting) determines the ability to sustain espoused communal values, then communality is not ingrained in our preferences as some development experts claim. We are not hardwired to be communal. If we use the wrong model of human behavior, our policy prescriptions will also be wrong. Until we figure out the perverse incentives that this false sense of communality creates and deal with them, we will be stuck in poverty. We are less communal than we think.

We do have some concrete communal values but let us not exaggerate them. In the economic arena, there is a heavy dose of individualism in us. That does not mean that we cannot co-operate to achieve mutually beneficial goals. So long as selfish individuals, spiced with some reasonable dose of communalism and trust, can foresee win-win situations and be patient enough, they will realize the enormous benefits of co-operation.

Are communal values hardwired in Ghanaians and Africans? I think not. What are some of these development experts talking about? There is, indeed, a difference between espoused values and actual values. Are we kidding ourselves?

*J. Atsu Amegashie, Department of Economics, University of Guelph, Canada.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage. <