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Opinions of Thursday, 31 October 2013

Columnist: Cameron Duodu

Why the elite in society must cultivate a social conscience

I am sure most readers would agree that life is full of contradictions!

From Great Britain, for instance, comes the saying, “You cannot carry coal to Newcastle.”

But when we come to Ghana we find this: “It is when you are climbing a tree proficiently that someone helps you up it by pushing you from behind.”

Don't take coal to a place where there is too much coal already. Yet give encouragement to someone who is already doing a great job!

in fact, the two sayings, although seemingly contradictory, can be synthesised. The British one, typically self-centred: “Hey I am all right, Jack, okay?“ And the Ghanaian one warmly appreciative, but inclined to interfere or even be officious: “Hey, Charlie, this guy is trying hard oh! Let's give him a push up the tree!”

I have led readers into this minor philosophical tease because knowing what I know of the Rotary Club of Ghana, for instance , I find it unwise to presume to talk to people like its members about social conscience. How can people who could be galvanised to provide not only materials but even more important, psychological comfort, to a group of orphans at Obenesu, near Pokuase, within one week of hearing about them – as was done by the Spintex (Accra) chapter of the Rotary Club, be told anything new on social conscience?

Addressing such individuals must be done with some trepidation. But to me, there is none. For there can never be too much love in the world. So it does no harm to reinforce such love as already exists in the world.

“Service above self”, one of the guiding principles of Rotarians, is of course, an idea that has been propagated by some of the greatest religions the world. Christianity, in particular, with its central theme of a saviour who sacrificed himself for peoples he did not know, exemplifies that notion.

Yet, if you delve into history, you will find` that some of the worst atrocities against human beings have been carried out by countries that called themselves 'Christian nations!' Who can listen to the music of Johannes Sebastian Bach, and relate it to the murder of six million human beings merely on account of the race into which they happened to be born? Who can imagine that in England, where Tom Paine wrote The Rights Of Man, people and their families were once thrown into jail for being unable to pay their debts?

That happened to the novelist Charles Dickens in his infancy, and a quote from Wikipedia tells us that:

“The prison scenes in [Dickens' novel] The Pickwick Papers are claimed to have been influential in having the Fleet Prison [in London] shut down. Karl Marx asserted that Dickens ..."issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together".

Apparently, when he read this testimony from Karl Marx, George Bernard Shaw was moved to come out with one of the striking witticisms for which he was known. He said that “Great Expectations [the famous novel by Charles Dickens] was more seditious than Karl Marx's own 'Das Kapital.'''

I want now to take you through a very practical – and practicable – set of social indicators that will help define what a heightened social conscience can work towards achieving in Ghana. Last month, please don't laugh – Denmark was crowned “The happiest country in the world!”

Yes, yes, I knew discerning readers might be thinking of the suicide rate in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries. Well, I was surprised when I looked up the figures: Suicides per 100,000 people per year: Greenland came first , followed by South Korea, with China coming 7th! 19th was Finland; 22nd South Africa; and the 'happiest country in the world', Denmark – 41st!

Oh, by the way, Ghana and Nigeria are both absent from the league table, for reasons that escape me. But I wouldn't be surprised if suicides in both countries are absent from the Table because they are recorded as “murder by witchcraft!”

But to be serious: the top countries in the World Happiness Index were those that generally ranked higher in a set of six key indicators:

1. a large GDP per capita; 2. a healthy life expectancy at birth; 3 [NB] a lack of corruption in leadership; 4. a sense of social support, 5. freedom to make life choices and 6. a culture of generosity.

But why does Denmark rank over any of the other wealthy, democratic countries with small, educated populations? And can the qualities that make this Nordic country the happiest around apply to other cultures across the globe? Here are a few things the Danes do well that any of us can lobby for:

(a) Denmark supports parents

While American women (for instance) scrape by with an average maternal leave of 10.3 weeks, Danish families receive a total of 52 weeks of parental leave. That is one full year! Mothers are able to take 18 weeks and fathers receive their own dedicated 2 weeks at up to 100 percent salary.

But the support doesn't stop at the end of this time. Danish children have access to free or low-cost child care. And early childhood education is associated with health and well-being throughout life for its recipients -- as well as for mothers. This frees up young mothers to return to the work force if they'd like to. The result? In Denmark, 79 percent of mothers return to their previous level of employment, compared to 59 percent of American women. These resources mean that women contribute 34 to 38 percent of income in Danish households with children, compared to 28 percent for American women.

(b) Health care is a civil right in Denmark -- and a source of social support

Danish citizens expect and receive health care as a basic right. They are in touch with their primary care physician an average of nearly seven times per year; which means they have a single advocate who helps them navigate more complicated health-care.

(c) Gender equality is prioritized

It isn't just parents who can expect balanced gender norms. Gender quotas introduced in the 1970s, have resulted in high numbers of female political representatives over the years. So much so that now, in Denmark, the quota has been abandoned as no longer necessary! Denmark, of course, currently has its first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt .

(d) Biking is the norm

In Denmark's most populated and largest city, Copenhagen, half of all travelling is done by bicycle. This doesn't just improve fitness levels and reduce carbon emissions, but also contributes to the wealth of the city. The road-makers don't need to be told to make provision for bike riders. And no kiosks are allowed to be sited where pedestrians are supposed to walk safely! Nor are there smelly open gutters! Accra-Tema City Council, do you hear that? Kumase, where you dey?

(e) Danes feel a responsibility to one another

Denmark is a society where Citizens participate voluntarily in making society work.

More than 40 percent of all Danes do voluntary work in cultural and sports associations, NGOs, social organisations, political organisations, etc. In 2006, there were 101,000 Danish organisations -- worth noting in a population of only 5.5 million. The economic value of this unpaid work represents 9.6 percent of the Danish GDP.

Danes also take pride in their involvement with the democratic process. During the last election in September 2011, for example, 87.7 percent of the country voted.

Some of these factors are, of course, political. But if you have a strong social conscience, then you will realise that politics is only a means of people organising themselves, together with others of a like mind, to achieve social goals of the sort sketched here.

We shouldn't fear politics and politicians. It is politicians who must fear us. We should call them thieves when they seek power only to enrich themselves. And then fight to elect people who do have a social conscience, which makes them plan and work hard to achieve some of the advances Denmark and other countries have made. Does anyone think that a Government that had failed for over 5 years to complete a 40-km stretch of road linking the two main cities of Denmark – repeat, in over five years – would be re-elected to power?

I have alluded to some of the consequences of running regimes that ignore social deprivations. In Ghana, in 1979 and 1981, we caught a glimpse of the possibilities that can become reality when apathy – and corruption-- rob governments of all purpose.

It has often been said that those who do not learn from their own history, are condemned to relive it. Therefore, if we, now alive, do develop, and effectively apply, a strong sense of social consciousness, we shall, in fact, be acting in the enlightened self-interest of ourselves and our loved ones -- including the ''beautyful'' ones who are not yet born.