You hate being affluent? Then swap with us

A Ghanaian filmmaker who toured the UK with a documentary on debt relief was shocked to find so many Britons down on development.

De Roy Kwesi Andrew

Topics World

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I felt both joy and sadness when leaving Ghana for London. Joy because I was going to experience a different way of life in one of the richest countries in the world, where I planned to promote a critical film that I co-produced – titled Damned By Debt Relief – in schools, universities and other venues. And sadness because I was parting company with my lovely wife, my family and friends.

Within just six hours I had flown from Ghana to Gatwick Airport. This was human ingenuity. This was technology. I wished I could fly many times like that to any part of Ghana and across the world with my family for holidays. However, my wishes are under siege because I live on £3 a day.

We disembarked from the plane at Gatwick and were wheeled around the magnificent airport by escalators and lifts. Old and physically challenged people did not need to exert themselves since machines were aiding them. I was overjoyed by the ease of life that development has brought to people in the UK. As we drove off from the airport, my amazement turned to anger as the gulf between Ghana and London became apparent. I saw huge beautiful bridges and highways, underground trains, railways, buses and modern housing. I was incensed because, in Ghana, tiny, low-scale development projects are all that are on offer from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and various externally-funded NGOs.

I was particularly stunned by two big supermarkets called Tesco and Asda. I was amazed to see so many varieties of food from different countries at affordable prices, all in one shop and kept in hygienic conditions. In Ghana, one has to wander around every nook and cranny of local markets just to gather basic ingredients – and they’re expensive. There’s none of the convenience of readymade food, which is affordable for most people in Britain. Why don’t NGOs campaign for Ghanaians to have easy access to cheap and nutritious food?

De Roy Kwesi Andrew

In people’s homes in the UK there are washing and drying machines for dishes and clothes. There are freezers and widescreen televisions. Many Ghanaians trek daily for miles, scrambling for firewood, water and foodstuff, carrying heavy loads on our heads and our backs. Yet scientific, technological and industrial developments have given our peers in the West enviable and unparalleled freedom, choices and opportunities in life. The labour-intensive work in Ghana is intolerable.

Given all of the conveniences that exist, it is not surprising that people in London seem to sleep very little. The bars, pubs, clubs and cinemas fill up in the evenings. People wine, dine and dance through the night, enjoying themselves with their friends and loved ones. In Ghana we rarely have time for such entertainment. When our daily activities consist of so much unproductive manual labour, how can we have time over for leisure? I never saw my father taking a stroll with any of his four children, let alone going on holiday. It was not because he didn’t love us or did not desire to do those things, but because there was no money and there was no spare time for relaxing activities. Lack of development in Ghana has denied us the vital pleasures and comforts of life; our activities are geared towards survival.

Disenchanted with development

Yet, as I started my speaking tour in British schools, colleges and universities to promote the WORLDwrite documentary Damned By Debt Relief, which was filmed in Ghana and which I worked on, it soon became clear that all that glitters is not gold. The great ideas that spurred on pioneers to make life easier, more bountiful and pleasurable for those in the West are now under attack. The culprits in the dock are affluence, ambition, science and technology – and strangely, the jury prosecuting these benefits of modern life are those who already have and enjoy them.

I was surprised by the views of some quite cynical audience members during a discussion of affluence at the Battle of Ideas, a festival of debate in central London at the end of last year. This was the first time I heard the suggestion that flying abroad should be rationed, or worse still, banned. The denunciation of material comfort is so widespread in the West that even schoolchildren seem to think affluence is an evil. Many people I met in Britain told me that there is less happiness and laughter in British society due to economic development. Some said that Africans are happier than Brits even though they are poorer. I thought that freedom from toil was the centrepiece of economic development, handing anybody the ability to unleash their potential and gain unlimited opportunities: most people in Britain have that freedom; we in Ghana do not.

If Westerners are not happy with such great things, perhaps they should swap with us Africans. We would love to have what these people seem to hate. You see, we believe in the material progress of mankind; the vast majority of Ghanaians I spoke to while making Damned by Debt Relief said they want more from life: more goods, more products, more choice. We hate being constantly subdued by nature; we are tired of dying early; we are tired of sleeping in mud huts; we are tired of walking long distances for water, food and fuel; we are tired of doing our washing by hand; we are tired of farming with hoes and cutlasses and waiting for nature to be merciful unto us. You think this way of life is ‘natural’ and happiness-inducing? Then you should try it out.

At another discussion, a concerned student told me that humans are destroying the planet. He said that we are greedy, consume too much, produce too much, fly too much and drive unnecessarily big cars… He said that all of this greedy consumption by Westerners is to blame for Africa’s poverty. I felt very sorry for this doom-monger. Africans are not suffering because of climate change. We’re suffering because of underdevelopment. The fact is we simply don’t have the infrastructure that has enabled the West to subdue nature. If we are at the mercy of the climate, it is because our societies remain under-industrialised.

It seems that many in Britain no longer believe in humankind as the architect of history, but rather see it as the destroyer. And they see nature as the redeemer.

Fear of the future

This was exemplified at a climate change demonstration I attended in London. It was a protest against America’s refusal to kowtow to the Kyoto treaty and, more fundamentally, against the so-called destruction of the environment by the West’s unrestrained economic growth. What struck me most was the frantic attempt by some of the speakers to gag any critical debate on the issue. ‘This is no time for debate, this is operation Noah’, said a bishop. Another person spoke of ‘thousands of people in Africa and Bangladesh’ who are dying because of the West’s recklessness and greedy consumption, imploring the crowd to cut down their carbon emissions. The crowd didn’t need much convincing. Placards demanded ‘no to 4×4 cars’, ‘take public transport’ and ‘don’t fly’. I’m happy that those of us living in Ghana don’t tend to see climate change as a problem. We see only a lack of economic development that might tame the consequences of what nature throws at us.

As my tour gathered momentum, the pessimism and disenchantment I had seen at the climate protest became more apparent. At a debate in London, an African lecturer said that Africans were suffering because of their corrupt leaders. Why is every rich African seen as corrupt, and why has corruption became such a huge development issue? Why does the West look at Africans and their leaders with distrust and suspicion? Corruption is not the biggest problem in Ghana, or elsewhere in Africa. Our biggest problem is Western interference and lack of meaningful investment. Corruption has been used as an excuse by the West to extend its regulatory policies in our continent.

One of the stops on our film tour was a posh modern university in central London (the kind of I’ve always longed to study at) where the film engendered a very healthy debate. Students posed lots of intelligent questions, like: ‘Ghana is resource-rich and has a good business climate, so why aren’t investors interested in investing in it?’; ‘What is wrong with the poverty reduction strategy?’ After telling the students that the sum of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and debt relief combined is worth less to Ghana than the remittances from Ghanaians living abroad, they started to revise their notes. They couldn’t believe their ears. They began to see the low horizons, the lies and the emptiness that has been sold as ‘debt relief’ to African nations.

I told them that poverty reduction is a one-size-fits-all straitjacket programme that was imposed on Ghana and other Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs) in the form of conditionalities for debt relief. What the poverty reduction strategy offers are basic local schemes like micro-credit for women, boreholes and latrines. Ghanaians will never be fooled into thinking that is development.

I had a memorable discussion at a sixth-form college where Bob Geldof had given a talk just a week earlier. Most of the students who attended had participated in Live8 and Make Poverty History, so they were shocked at my uncompromising swipe at such campaigns. When I said that the only ‘mission accomplished’ by Live8 and the G8 meetings in Gleneagles in summer 2005 was to promote and entrench survivalism, interference and low horizons, they were rattled. I outlined the facts about the insidious strings attached to the debt-relief initiative: for example, debt-relief programmes forbid poor countries from investing in the industrial base of their societies, instead demanding that they set up small-scale ‘poverty reduction’ initiatives. This is not only deplorable Western interference in our affairs; it also prevents us from taking leaps forward.

One student wanted to know how he could help. ‘I have £10. I really want to help and you’re saying you don’t want pity. The NGO campaigners you mentioned are making emotional fanfares to get our money, but they are not delivering the real development that you want – so what should those of us who genuinely want to help do?’, he asked. At least this student’s token gesture of giving £10 was bigger than the UN’s miserable Millennium Development Goal target, which is to raise poor people’s wages to $2/day (the Jubilee 2000 campaign, a collection of NGOs and activists, would rather raise it to $3/day). These are the supposed ambitions that Ghana must aspire to. How insulting.

Growth is good

Does the West really believe in economic development in Africa? No. The West and its funding agencies don’t think much is possible at all in terms of economic development. Given these low horizons, it is no wonder that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is so low in Ghana and that Official Development Assistance (ODA) is at its lowest ebb since the 1970s. Even Western-funded NGOs like Oxfam and ActionAid believe that giving micro-credit loans of between £10 and £30 to women constitutes ‘development’. But what can £10 do for Ghanaians who want to have industries, factories, highways, jobs and a university education?

If all that rich Western donors and NGOs promote in Ghana are ‘basic’ schemes, then what can a British student full of good intentions do? My advice to students and others who want to help is to at least find out what really goes on in Africa, and then tell the truth and challenge these awful campaigns that force Ghanaians to continue living peasant lives.

As part of my tour, I was invited to Cambridge University. It was a great privilege for me to debate in such a high-class university, where the cream of the world’s intellectuals have spoken before me. I came armed for one of my toughest debates. Many questions were asked, covering the usual issues of corruption and impending environmental disaster. One man said: ‘You accuse Blair and Bob Geldof of being self-elected speakers for the poor in Ghana but those of you in this film are not poor, so how could you claim to be speaking for the poor?’ I told him that as a basic teacher in Ghana (my dayjob when I am not making films and campaigning) I live on £3 a day – does that make me rich? Anyway, even if I or the others interviewed in Damned by Debt Relief were rich, neither Mr Blair nor Mr Geldof could ever know our development priorities better than we do ourselves. Don’t Ghanaians, rich or poor, have the right to speak against Western interference and low expectations? Blair and Geldof (and now the new prime minister Gordon Brown) have no constitutional mandate to speak for Ghanaians; we did not vote for them.

We in Ghana are prepared to do everything we can to improve the lives of our people: to build factories, universities, hydro and nuclear power projects, and to create millions of jobs. It is not us but the West that has lost any sense of development. And when Western-backed policies fail in Ghana, Ghanaians cannot hold any Western organisations or their governments responsible. They are unaccountable and unelected agencies as far as the Ghanaian electoral mandate is concerned. Which members of the World Bank or IMF have been taken to task for their disastrous Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in Ghana in the 1980s and 1990s? None of them.

Fighting together for real development

I was curious to see what an English village looks like. I was shown a couple of very nice places in the countryside and was astonished to hear that they are called ‘villages’. They all had highways, running water, electricity, recreational facilities, supermarkets, telecommunication facilities and more besides. In Ghana, such facilities are conspicuous by their absence – even in towns and cities. Apparently, it is considered a privilege to live in some rural areas in the UK and people actually long to settle down there. In Ghana, young people are fleeing in droves from rural areas because life there is full of misery and hopelessness. In the cities, there are at least some social amenities, infrastructure, jobs, education and entertainment.

One fascinating feature about the British countryside is its farming. I saw vast tracts of land being manned by just one person. From the tilling of the land and the planting of crops to harvesting, storage and the transport of farm produce, all of it involved the use of machinery. In England, farming is not only simpler than in Africa; it is also an attractive business venture. By contrast, I escaped rural and farming life in Ghana because it is punitive, unproductive and hopeless. In school, errant students are made to weed with axe, hoe and cutlass as a form of punishment because the teachers consider our farming methods to be retributive. The mass exodus of rural youth to urban areas in search of a better life has its genesis in their rejection of a life of primitive farming. Unfortunately, such a life is being promoted through poverty reduction initiatives and is romanticised by many in the West as ‘sustainable development’.

At the final screening of Damned by Debt Relief, many people – including Ghanaians – showed up at the improvised theatre at the WORLDwrite centre in London. We showed the film and I gave my speech for the last time. I argued that ‘the West’s environmentalism, which puts nature above human beings and despises true development, leaves Africans living off the land and remaining as poor as ever. The West’s association of corruption with Africans and their leaders is racial discrimination in disguise – it is an idea which sweeps global inequality and underdevelopment under the carpet.’

When I arrived back home in Ghana I was heartily welcomed by my wife and friends at the airport. But the euphoria was as shortlived as the electricity: Ghana’s ongoing energy crisis had caused yet another blackout, shrouding the journey back to our house in unrelenting darkness. What a contrast to Britain’s uninterrupted national grid! What I experienced during my stay in the UK has brought untold frustrations into my life as I think about how long it will take Ghanaians to overcome huge global inequalities. However, I know I must cling to the memories of the many debates I had in the UK, in the knowledge that most people in the West, when faced with the facts, do not wish upon Ghanaians the shackles of underdevelopment. Let us all call for real development, and for countries like Ghana to become as economically developed and comfortable as Britain – if not even more so.

De Roy Kwesi Andrew is a teacher living in Ghana. He co-produced the documentary Damned by Debt Relief with WORLDwrite, the London-based education charity.

Watch a clip from Damned by Debt Relief:

Previously on spiked

In an interview with Brendan O’Neill, De Roy Kwesi Andrew said ‘Bob Geldof, you are not our messiah’. Nathalie Rothschild saw a WORLDwrite documentary which demanded Sir Bob Geldof give us some focking answers. Mick Hume argued that Africa has become a stage for political poseurs and, a year after the G8 Gleneagles summit and the Live 8 concerts, David Chandler said it was time to make lecturing Africa history. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

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