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Opinions of Sunday, 2 November 2008

Columnist: Adu-Gyamfi, Kwaku

The Globalization of the U.S Financial Nightmare

: Its Effects on Ghana and Ghanaians At Home and Abroad.

The moaning, groaning and whining are not going to stop any time soon—thanks to the Wall Street’s meltdown and the U.S hostile Immigration laws. But, any lesson learned yet?

A STORY IS TOLD THAT KWAME ANTWI , a 24 year -old Ghanaian illegal immigrant, who used to send money home generously to a fault --- to pay for his nephews ‘ school fees and his family’s living expenses now thinks more of his future than his family back home.

Kwame is every parent’s dream child. He has been living in the U.S, illegally for three years but, able to cough up some capital for his wife to start a small grocery store in the village of Tweapease, in the Kwaebibrim district. On top of that he was in the process (before the Wall Street meltdown) of building a three –bed room house to shelter his parents from the rain and the shabby dwelling which they now occupy. The pressure was building upon him because they’re getting old without a home to call their own.

His monthly expenditure on phone cards alone is enough to pay for teacher Mante’s monthly salary at Twespease. . Nevertheless, just like most Ghanaians in the diaspora he has to call home frequently to check on the family he left behind. In effect, he is the pillar of the family, and his open-heartedness has made him an enviable recipient of phone calls from Ghana. Every member of his family “flashes” him to ask for money or the latest phone and IPod. I guess the folks back home are taking advantage of his kindness and thoughtfulness. Does this sound very familiar and, how do you see yourself in this story?

Like many Ghanaians at home who have relatives in the diaspora, his parents have been waiting anxiously for their monthly remittance, through the Money Gram, (before the Wall Street disaster hit). And, they’re still waiting. No one—including Kwame--- can tell how long they have to wait. Everyone is practically on the budget---one’s income doesn’t matter.

Thanks to the uncertainty of the U.S immigration Laws that are keeping him in limbo and the recent economic meltdowns that have made his living in the U.S very nervous and unstable—to say the least. He doesn’t call home frequently these days, as he used to because he’s not thinking about the home -front issues anymore. Currently, he worries about his job and immigration prospect than anything else.

As if he doesn’t have enough problems to deal with, then he got unexpected mid-night phone calls from his friends and family members. First, he’s still dealing with the fallout from the proposed immigration bills that were never passed .They are gathering dust in the Congress’ warehouse. Nobody knows when and if the U.S government is ever going to address the immigration issue again. Now, to add insult to injury an Economic” Armageddon” has been added to his pains. Even the $700 billion (yes, billion with capital ‘B’) bailout plan to stop the bleeding is not enough to fix the problem. .

Kwame is not the only victim of the new “economic disorder”. The credit crisis and economic decline of recent weeks in the U.S are having their toll on every body—both home and abroad--, including Ghanaian immigrants, so everyone is economizing and belt –tightening. To this list of the Wall Street’s meltdown casualties add Ghana and the Ghanaians at home--- particularly those in the rural areas who have no other source of income other than the remittances from abroad.

Looking at Kwame’s predicament---which is very common among Ghanaian immigrants---you should understand why this financial mess is going to affect the folks back home more than anything else. The fact of the matter is we’re stunned by how quickly the turmoil on Wall Street is spilling over to our lives, wallets and the loved ones at home-- in Ghana. And, the sad thing is few of us have the slightest idea how to cope—even the live-within-your- means remedy is not working.

The Wall -Street‘s headache is having a significant adverse effect on the Main Streets on the other side of the Atlantic because the financial downturn is going to put a squeeze on the world’s charitable and loan donors. Ghana, being a foreign Loan-dependency nation, our national budget is going to be affected by the events in America and around the world.

. Well, perhaps you say,”I don’t own any American stock or shares-- and that the crisis is Americans’ problem. This has nothing to do with me or Ghana.” Yes, you may not have anything to do with the Wall Street, especially if you’re living at Tweapease. But, if your brother, --who is in the States-- is on the verge of losing his house and can’t pay for his credit card bills---because he has been fired from his job and has depleted his life savings, then there is a real course for concern. Think about this; He won’t be able to send your mother “chop money” next month. Do you remember the Christmas presents sent to your wife and the kids last year? Well, don’t count on your sister this time. She has got serious problems on hand. Her brand new Mercedes SUV has been repossessed by the car dealership, because she couldn’t afford the payment anymore. Mother, you may have to postpone your surgery at Kole-BU Hospital, indefinitely because the housing foreclosure has affected your daughter’s finances and life. She and her family are living in a friend’s basement temporary while she’s trying to figure out her next move.

This is what is going on: We and other “developing countries depend on the money from the western banks to build factories, buy machinery and export goods to Europe and United States.” So when those banks stop lending and the money dries up, as it has been in recent weeks investors’ confidence vanishes and the countries suddenly find themselves in crisis.

To put it in another way, if the consumers in foreign countries who eat chocolates and other cocoa products don’t have money to buy cocoa products the companies that buy our cocoa won’t buy it. That means the Ghana government can’t get money to finance construction projects—like schools, pipe water and roads. There would be no money to stock the hospital with medications, or equip our security agencies with crime -fighting tools, and pay salaries.

In short, the U.S economic hurricane is an equal opportunity employer; everyone gets a fair share. So no matter where you live, Globalization has exposed the fragility of the world’s financial system and made national borders porous and vulnerable. So if you live at Tweapease, Tamale or Tema you’re not immune to economic or social events in other part of the world.

It’s no longer news to talk about the role remittances from the Ghanaian immigrants in the diaspora play in the lives of the folks we left home behind. But relax. I’m not here to give you a sermon about the Ghanaian migrants’ Voting Rights in Ghanaian politics and the Dual citizenship mumbo-jumbo. I’m not even in the mood to discuss the fact that Ghanaian migrants are disproportionally the recipients of the armed robbers’ vengeance in Ghana. So you don’t have to be so defensive about anything. This is not one of the “Borgers” diatribes. This is meant to be a conversation starter.

The fact is we can’t extol the virtue of life in Ghana –with its stress-free trimmings--- without considering and discounting the ripple effects of the Immigration laws in our host countries and the world’s economic down- turn on Ghanaian immigrants and the folks at home. I’m not being melodramatic, but there’s no soul in Ghana who hasn’t been touched directly or indirectly by or benefitted from the remittances from abroad. It’s estimated that directly, over 3 million Ghanaians at home have been sustained, maintained and nurtured by the remittances from Ghanaians abroad .However, whom am I to toot our own horns? I just don’t want to start a civil war in Ghana with such a “sensitive subject” because a lot of people at home won’t’ even touch this subject with Michael Jackson’s glove. They treat it as a taboo.

For one thing, the effect of the remittances on the Ghanaian economy is arguable---exaggerated or underestimated, depending on who is doing the reporting and counting. But, one thing is certain: when Ghanaian migrants sneeze in New York or Paris there are Ghanaians in Ghana who catch pneumonia. The ripple effects of immigration laws or economic uncertainties are felt all the way in the neighborhood of Tweapease. .

In brief, If the downsizing, layoffs, loss of pension plans, outsourcing of jobs and housing foreclosures are forcing Ghanaian immigrants to make a sudden change in their lifestyles, career paths and priorities, the last thing on their minds is sending money home to loved ones .As Ghanaian immigrants default on their personal bills or behind on their credit – card bills payment, their stress level goes high and everything looks disastrous—personal dreams goes sour and home front issues are pushed aside.

Another issue is that, when the Ghanaian immigrants “papers” are not stable to enable them to stay in the host countries --they change their perceptions in relation to remittances. The Ghanaian immigrants are very apprehensive and therefore re-adjust their future goals and plans to suit their illegal status .As a result, the remittances to the folks at home are curtailed; pending on the outcome of their immigration status and favorable economic conditions in the host countries.

On that basis, the longer the U.S immigration laws-- which are stored on the shelf of congress---are delayed, and the longer the economic uncertainties last for Ghanaians in the diaspora, the more the living standards of the folks at home go down. And, those include the suspension of funerals, medical bills and school fees payments--- for the family members we left behind. When we don’t feel good, they too will have sleepless nights. They can’t sleep well when the light bills are not paid and the spouses’ capital for trading is held in limbo and families are put on economic diet.

If I were a social welfare minister or a finance minister in Ghana I’d worry about this issue because that is a wake-up call. The falling remittances from Ghanaian immigrants in the diaspora, particularly, United States should raise concerns for our government because Ghana has an import-oriented economy and it needs remittances to keep the economy afloat .Without that the citizenry will suffer. The Public safety minister should also worry .Some people even predict that crime rate will go up if the Ghanaian economy goes south because crime and economy go hand in hand.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from all that. The lessons here are clear: 1) We have to live within our means and we can’t and shouldn’t depend on others to take care of our needs. 2) Nothing is stable so we can choose to hide under a rock and ignore our responsibilities or embrace the changes and look for new opportunities. For every change there’s an equal seed of opportunity.

3) We can’t tiptoe around this serious world’s economic issue without taking a concrete action to map out our exit strategies.

4) Let’s not sabotage our growth process with Band-Aid solutions.

The fact of the matter is there is a need to search for a sense of mission or a purpose as a nation. The world’s changing every day and we have to move with time otherwise we’re going to be the casualties of time. Globalization is changing the way we do things and live our lives in Ghana, therefore we have to embrace it. But, we can’t and shouldn’t use 19th century tools to solve 21st century’s problems.

First, the world moved from an agricultural Age to the industrial Age to technical age then to information age. Right now, most visionary countries are on to the IDEA AGE or what may be called,”Creative Age” That means the center gravity of the new Economic Order has shifted from technology to the possession of great Ideas. But, unfortunately, our educational system only prepares us for a paycheck mentality---it’s an academic system that teaches us to work in a workplace that is disappearing and requires no creative thinking. It’s not surprising that about 80 percent of our university graduates work outside of their degrees.

Regrettably, I think we’re going to be the causalities of time because as Ghanaians, we want light without darkness, spring without winter, and joy without sadness, money without any effort and love and happiness without any personal and emotional investment. We have endless appetite for luxury things without paying the price. We want everything instantly. I’m impressed!

The deeply held belief of getting something for nothing is killing our ingenuity .Are we creativity –impaired or integrity –challenged, or both? I hope the answer is or should be emphatic for the sake of our future.

I guess you know quite a few people who work for companies or industries they really don’t believe in or make products they would not recommend to their friends or family .What about Ghanaians who deceitfully sell defective cars or products just to make a quick money ,food they know is unhealthy and contaminated, pure-water that is not “pure” ,land that is either in dispute or nothing but swamps, business opportunities that don’t really work?. In short, we don’t want to invest in our talents, skills and calling. We want money, oftentimes by any means we can get by with, so we have no time to be creative and think out –side- the box. Well, folks at some point we may have to make a choice because ignoring reality has a price. A big price, indeed!

One thing is clear. The fallout of the global economic meltdown is not simply a matter of greed or mismanagement, but it’s also a direct result of misguided fiscal policies, lack of accountability and responsibility and putting self- interest above the nation’s well- being. Does it sound familiar?

I’m holding my breath, but I’d like to see the day when we would think creatively and find solutions to our emerging problems. Halba! Am I expecting too much when we can’t even find solutions to eradicate mosquitoes’ breeding grounds in our midst? Do we need a research to figure out what the plastic waste is costing us? Which is cheaper to mange--- the plastic waste or curing the malaria? Come on. Gimme a break!

Amazingly, we sometimes tend to associate creative thinking with discovery of great things like polio vaccine, but not so. Creative thinking is simply finding new, improved ways to do things and solve real- life problems. The fact is developing our creative minds goes beyond education and intelligence. It requires the need to be imaginative or groundbreaking and ability to think outside- the- box by recognizing common solutions to new challenges. In fact, we need very basic (not sophisticated) approach to solve our problems.

There are unlimited opportunities to find solutions to overhaul our schools clean our communities, fight crime in our cities and neighborhoods. There are also problems in our churches and mosques that require new solutions .Many of these problems need originality and creativity insight solutions, but not more information or technology---solutions that come from human insight and ingenuity are very easy and cheaper to implement.

The world is very hungry for solutions .Therefore any country with creative minds and ideas that can solve world’s emerging problems is not only going to laugh all the way to the bank, but will withstand any future economic uncertainty or turmoil. Now, the question is: Do we have the temperament or the will power to take this challenge? I doubt it. Because the policy makers are not ready, our community leadership are content with the status quo and not ready for change, and the citizenry is not willing to put in the time and effort. Aren’t you proud?

But, as cynical as I may be about our political system, lousy politicians, corrupt civil servants, credibility-impaired citizenry and all the ills in our country ,I think we’re far better than most African countries. So, this is our time. Perhaps, what we see as an obstacle or an economic disaster is a nature’s gentle way of directing us to a more fulfilling future and solid agenda.

This “economic disaster “ should allow us as a nation to take a fresh look at who we are , where we’re going and what are our competence is; strategically . So let’s stop the whining and complaining .We need to roll up our sleeves and begin to work hard to build the nation---by building our deteriorating infrast-ructures ,revitalizing our school system, solve the truck -load of our time –consuming chieftaincy disputes, finding a permanent solutions to electricity and water shortages and embark on policies that will” increase the value of our human capital “ .Every nation puts its self –interest first that is why America is spending $ 700billion to bailout its own economy (which is on life support system).So what makes you think that it’s going to bankroll our economy and build our schools and roads or supply our schools with computers? It’s too early to predict the total damage and the causalities of the economic showdown, so our best bet is to prepare and take care of our needs; right now once we have time. We can’t wait for other countries to lift us up. Self-reliance, baby!

So again, behind the ashes of the world’s economy downturn, what are the lessons learned in our part of the world? Every generation has something it needs to fix from the generation that preceded it. So what are we ‘fixing’ and what are we waiting for? Do we have time?

Did I “rattle enough cages” yet? I know I’m going to offend people and make them uncomfortable. But, if you have issues with what I have said prove me wrong. Fair? It seems so to me!

*Kwaku Adu-Gyamfi NJ, USA