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Opinions of Friday, 10 September 2010

Columnist: Otchere-Darko, Gabby Asare

It's The Poverty -- Stupid!

9th September 2010

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. ~ William Butler Yeats

Do politicians ever think of the kind of life the average Ghanaian 'worker' lives? Not even the unemployed - the one who has a job -- any kind of job. Take the mother who operates a small table-top 'shop' or any mother who buys and sells, micro scale -- hours upon hours a day, rain or shine, with a baby tied to her spine. She does so giving 24-hour care to her toddler; if she's lucky her 8-year-old daughter may come back from school and help her out, while she takes time off to cook for other members of the family and back to selling; in the heat, fighting off flies amid the fumes and vrooms of modernity.

If she's lucky she will make 6 Ghana cedis profit on a good day. More than half of that will go on food for the family. Same routine, six days a week, month after month, year on year.

Sundays she will go to Church, dress up her kids neatly, pray to God that her kids may give a far better life to her grandchildren than she is able to give them now.

Periodically, schools will re-open; electricity and water bills will come; rent will be due; children will occasionally lose the hide and seek game with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Thank God one of the kids has gone beyond BECE. But his BECE grades were poor. Remedial classes must be paid for; but with no guarantees of success.

Her husband works hard when he finds it. He takes refuge in the hackneyed phrase, 'There is no money in the system.' He sees his family divorced from the slogan of a Better Ghana; just as, for lack of fare funds, they missed the bus to Positive Change (both chapters). He cannot help but worry about what he and his family will eat in their old age. They may have no pension to which to look forward. But, that is way too far; what about next week? Business may not be good for her husband; who, nevertheless, has to find money every evening for the bar man to drown his inadequacies -- you and I may not understand, but that is his way of coping.

That's just the way it is.

Their family is increased every so often by a new arrival to their world of many uncertainties but one certainty -- poverty, worsening poverty with one extra mouth to feed, one extra body to cloth. A member of the larger family will surely die this year or next, contributions will have to be made. That, on the whole, is the life of the average Ghanaian family.

To borrow the words of Saul Alinsky, a routine in which they rot. The dreariest, drabbest, grayest outlook that one can have. Nothing dramatic, nothing exciting, nothing to hope for, no satisfaction of any desire except in one's own daydreams. Simply a future of utter despair. In the words of Tocqueville, "It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated..." Unfortunately, multitudes of our people have been condemned to a life of urban or rural anonymity. They are not living; merely existing.

Those who say they care may say so, may think so, may feel so but the stretch of their caring hands is not finding the families of social anonymity whose addresses are unknown, who do not even register as scientific statistics in the data of those who possess the hands that claim to seek to care. Yet, every Government knows that the suffering masses carry more votes than the small reserve army of middle class, who, by virtue of their social status, may find the discerning space to understand the oft-trumpetted macro achievements of Government. Music to the ears of the blower but painful cacophony to those who have to bear it on top of the load they can't bear.

There is something that governments over here simply don't get: Ghanaians are poor. Our people are very, very poor. There is very little any government can do within its life time to change that mightily, when the basis of their adversity and misery - lack of education, lack of skills and lack of jobs cannot be tackled with any radical vim.

However, some mothers understand that pretty much. They just want to know that their children are likely to have a better life. They are willing to accept their fate if only Government is willing to do something for the destiny of their child. Some fathers want to make sure that their human dignity - of being able to provide the basic necessities of life to their wards -- is not taken away by the inadequicies of their circumstances. There is nothing that subtracts dignity from our humanity than not being able to care for the children you bear. Will he or she grow up in a society of opportunities? What with only 49% of JHS graduates earning a pass grade? What happens to the majority who didn't pass? What investments have been made in vocational and technical educations, from where the majority of skills that make any nation develop are churned? Why should Hope be hanged so high up beyond the reach of the many who only want it to inspire them, motivate them, serve as a pillow to their daydreams. Why all so high?

A lot is said about the NPP losing in 2008. That they did not sell their message well; that the messages were above the heads of ordinary Ghanaians. Well, you only have to listen to today's Government propagandists and ask again whether or not above-heads PR was exclusive to the NPP.

One thing people forget is that Government may brag as loudly as it can on how much it has achieved; but the people know the actual depth of their own poverty, the dearth of their problems and so naked is the poverty that you risk sounding arrogant and out-of-touch even when you are being honest in showing that you have done a lot more than the previous custodians of the public purse. The nudity of their poverty makes you rather sound like the emperor without cloths. Just take a look of the following seemingly impactless statistics. Yes, it is true that in 2000 only 2% of Ghanaians had access to a phone (fixed and mobile) and that by 2008 it had shot up to more than 9 million, over 40%. NPP nearly quadrupled the minimum wage from 42 Ghana pesewas in 2000 to 2.25 Ghana cedis by 2008, while more than halving inflation and increasing workers' wages in real terms consistently since 2003.

By 2001, new water points (boreholes and hand-dug wells) built across rural Ghana numbered 3,804. This more than doubled to 8191 by 2007.Cape Coast water, Tamale water, Ada/Sege water system, Koforidua water, Winneba, Kwanyaku, Barekese and Baafikrom water expansion projects were all done to the satisfaction of the communities.

These are poverty tackling programmes. But, once one problem is solved, the people will then focus on the others that keep them locked up in the gaols of poverty. The laws of economic relativity sets in. In case you are wondering why the rush in seizing latrines today, well, this may help. Under NPP almost four times more were built; so ther is more to go for.

NPP more than doubled NDC's cocoa production. NPP tripled growth rate in the agriculture sector and increased production across board, while building more roads for greater access to farm produce and therefore more income for farmers.

The period under Kufuor saw a 22-fold increase in investment in manufacturing and construction. 11.6 million Ghanaians were signed up under the NHIS. In the last six months of Kufuor alone a quater of a million women were to benefit from free maternity cover.

Public basic school enrolment numbers nearly doubled from 2.7 million in 1999 to 5 million. A primary school teacher saw her pay go up from 317 Ghana cedis in 2000 to 3,105 Ghana cedis in 2008. Public university enrolment more than doubled in the same period from 44,000 to 90,000. It may surprise you but this is true. In 2000, NDC spent $176 million on education, including pay and facilities. In 2007, NPP spent $1.4 billion on education!

So, ask yourself what went wrong? The answer is simple: POVERTY. You may bring half of it down to propaganda. But, the propaganda of the opposition merely fed on the poverty of the masses. Politicians in our poor but vibrant democracy has no business doing anything else but to talk about and address the poverty of the mass of our people. Every policy must be viewed in the context of poverty. Whatever messages must be said through the medium of poverty. How does it touch on the poverty of our people? How would it impact on it; how would it be received by the poor.

On Saturday, August 28, the very day that I arrived in America, Glenn Beck, arguably America's most (in)famous current affairs talk show host, ofFox News, had organised a gathering at the Lincoln Memorial to stage a rally where 47-years earlier Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers culminated their march on Washington.

If King's unforgettable "I Have a Dream" speech transformed a movement and touched America's soul -- and conscience; then the Glenn Beck version, which warned of America's drift to 'darkness' was to do just that - turn middle America against Obama, liberals, Moslems, immigrants and any scapegoat that America's right wingers could find. Some put the crowd at 73,000, the organisers at 500,000.

As one commentator said, you can slice and dice away, but no matter which side of the count you come down on, whether pro or anti-Beck, a whole lot of people showed up at the Lincoln Memorial to cheer their hero. In the absence of a formidable liberal movement a new political movement is born.

The Tea Party rage is boiling - with plenty of milk and sugar. It may or may not have a coherent political philosophy, but those who joined or followed or identified with the Tea Party, have emerged as whirlwind that could blow Obama out of office in 2012. It was said they lacked "sophistication", but passion and intensity can be a wonderful thing in politics, according to one commentary. That is the art of democracy -- identifying with the concerns of the majority.

Middle America, frustrated by the economic situation is looking for leadership and will take it wherever they find it. So the conservatives have found an efficient blend of fear, Christianity and hardships. In America, the Glenn Becks, Sarah Palins, Tea Partyists and the opposition Republicans are on a roll and to take over Congress in November's mid-term elections.

It is not because Obama is a very bad President that is why his ratings are low. No. It is because the opposition have focused on the concerns of middle America - the majority of Americans are middle class - so that is where the battle is and that is where they have pitched camp.

Where is our battlefield in Ghana? Stupid!

The author is the Executive Director of the Danquah Institute, a policy think tank in Accra. email: gabby@danquahinstitute.org

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