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Opinions of Monday, 17 July 2006

Columnist: Kutsoati, Edward

Who needs a police station, or a library?

Suppose you are on the market to buy a home for the first time. You notice two identical homes, in identical neighborhoods, except house A is next to a church, and house B is next to a police station. Suppose they are priced about the same, which one will you buy? I will buy the one next to the police station. And here is why: A well-funded police station will make my neighborhood safer, and hence more attractive to prospective buyers in the future. Thus, all else equal, house B will appreciate more in value, yielding a higher return for my investment. This wealth can serve as a collateral for a loan to expand or start a business, or pay for a child’s tuition. The same goes for a library, or a children’s park. So why do we have less of these amenities that add value to our communities? You might think the problem is money, but that is not necessarily true.

I live in, Tema, community 11 to be precise, where a new police station building was started in 2002 to primarily serve the residents of communities 6,10,11 and 12. Even with such a relatively high average household income in these four communities, five years on, what we have is an uncompleted structure surrounded by overgrown weeds. And from the way it is going, it might take several years for the residents of these four communities to have a police station. Now, if the police station will add value to our homes (as I reasoned above), why can’t we use some form of progressive tax (and a loan) to get all to pay for it? It cannot be that my neighbors do not fully appreciate the connection between the value of their homes/communities and the provision of such social services. Or do they? So what is going on? I decided to find out. My first stop was Auntie Afua, the owner of the store right next to the proposed police station. I figured she will benefit the most from a police station. [No thief will be dumb enough to steal from a store right next to the police station]. I asked her: “Why is it taking so long to complete this project?” Auntie Afua chuckled at the question, then she took a good look at the uncompleted building, as if she is seeing it for the first time, then laughed again, this time a bit harder. Then she shot back: “The assembly is useless. No progress has been made on the police station in the last 2 years or so. If this were a church, it will be completed by now.”

She is right. As a matter of fact, the resources devoted to ‘religious activity’ is truly startling: the Tema metropolitan area has a population of about 300,000; its 3 or 4 police units are seriously under-funded; and the city has no decent library. However, it has over 500 churches, filled by about 100,000 adults every sunday, each contributing an average of 5,000 cedis to the church. And that is a conservative estimate. This gives a total of 500 million cedis every sunday; or about $200,000 each month that goes to churches in Tema alone. So money can’t be the problem. If we were to declare church holidays a few times in a year, we can use this money to pay for a library or a police station, community after community. But would we? When I later asked Auntie Afua whether she would like another church building or a police station, her answer left me speechless. She thought for a few seconds and said: “Personally, I will like another church, because the church will make our hearts so pure that there will be no crime in our neighborhoods, and hence no need for a police station.”

This sounds like a well-thought out, logical point (as you might have noticed), but at its core is a huge dose of wishful thinking. The evidence couldn’t be more opposite: property crime rate in Ghana, as long with other social vices, has not abated, even with the explosion of religion. Bottom line is, Auntie Afua is just hoping that the church will instill some morality in us, so as to reduce crime. And in fact, the demand for such “hope” (for just about everything) is astronomical, and the leaders of organized religion are just happy to supply this “hope” with more church buildings and longer all-night prayer services. Further, our pastors have also found a clever way to sustain this demand ---- by constantly pumping “fear” into us. That way, we have become oblivious of the fact that property crime is not caused by the “devil” (as we have been made to believe), but driven mainly by a lack of employment opportunities and a low apprehension rate (i.e., under-funded and ill-equipped police force).

More troubling is the fact that this culture of “fear of the devil” have crept all the way up to the halls of our government. When petroleum engineers started abandoning their jobs at the Tema Oil refinery due to poor salaries, our honorable Minister for Energy blamed the devil. In an August 2005 speech delivered at a non-denominational church service, President John Kufour called on Ghanaians to intensify their prayers for the nation’s development. Intensify prayers? Is the President aware that nationwide, over 2 million Ghanaians attend all-night prayer services on Friday nights that lasts no less than 5 hours? Not to mention the time spent at church on each Sunday! We are already at the top of Gallup International poll of the most religious nations, so how much more prayers do we need? If there is anything that Ghanaians need less of, it is prayers. Why is this devil not bothering Canadians, or the Swiss, or the Americans, whose adult entertainment industry alone is worth over $12 billion each year (higher than Ghana’s GDP of $10 billion)? Are we to believe that the devil only enjoys feasting on black people? I once told my Chinese friend of religion in Ghana, and asked her about China’s. She was shocked, and said, “if China spent that much time in churches, we will not be able to flood Walmart and Woolsworth with all the goods you see there.”

It is time we stop creating this figment of a devil in our imagination and get to work. It is time we rescue ourselves (and God) from organized religion, so we can channel these resources into value-creating investments. To get there, it is necessary for the central government to permit people to choose their leaders (including all assembly members, DCEs, and Regional Ministers) so that potential leaders can compete for our votes with new ideas. Perhaps, this way, we can get leaders in our communities who (a) will serve, and be accountable to, us; and (b) will recognize the value of a well-funded police station or a library, work to protect individual rights to their property, so each will have an incentive to pay for the social services that add value to our communities. That is the best way to create wealth, one community at a time.



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