A lot of people have asked me what I think about Obama’s visit to Ghana, and specifically, his speech to Ghanaian parliamentarians. It’s undoubted that his presence in Ghana was a historic one – mainly because he is the first black US president, and Ghana is the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence. It was also a great occasion because in many ways than one, Obama has succeeded in reminding a great number of people, about the possibilities that abound, if they are willing to work hard and take the necessary risks. Now that said, I did have some qualms about his visit, because it represents not only possibilities, but challenges too. I aired similar concerns in my article The Obama Effect & the African Illusion during Obama’s presidential campaign . Bottomline is, Obama’s successes can only be beneficial to Africans, if we regard them as proof that we can make a difference and be the change we want to see in our world. The moment we begin to conceive this single man as our “savior,” our chances of “redemption” will be thwarted. My choice of title for this article might sound pessimistic, negative or downright unappreciative. But before you draw conclusions, let me explain why I honestly believe that Obama only reiterated what we already know.
Obama’s speech was right on point and as always, President Obama delivered his speech with the level of eloquence, consideration, emphasis, humor and attitude of a great orator. When it comes down to it however, he said nothing new. Perhaps the only novel thing about his speech was his emphasis on the fact that Africans will determine their own future. “This is a new moment of promise. Only this time, we have learned that it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future. Instead, it will be you – the men and women in Ghana’s Parliament, and the people you represent. Above all, it will be the young people – brimming with talent and energy and hope – who can claim the future that so many in my father’s generation never found.” Unlike his predecessor George Bush who promised billions in aid to Africa, Obama stressed that the U.S. would work in partnership with African countries instead of simply pumping dollars into African economies. “But the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of aid that helps people scrape by – it is whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.” He introduced the dimension of focusing on the provision of new methods and technology, as opposed to just food or monetary aid. “… why our $3.5billion food security initiative is focused on new methods and technologies for farmers – not simply sending American producers or goods to Africa. Aid is not an end in itself. The purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it is no longer needed.”
This notion of “transformatinal change” is something that forms the cornerstone of development economics. Heterodox economists like Ha-Joon Chang and Robert Wade have stressed the importance of building capacities for change. According to Chang, “development is more than providing higher standards of living,” and is rather the “transformation of productive structire and the capabilities that support it.” Mr. Obama touched on some of these capabilities – namely good governance (democracy), opportunity (employment), health, and peaceful resolution of conflict (socio-political stability).
Africans realized the need for them to handle their own state of affairs about 50 decades ago, hence the desire for independence from their colonial masters. Obviously, we have gone through a series of trials and errors which have resulted in our almost stagnant development. But it is exactly this process of trial and error that made us realize the importance of democracy. Obama rightly stated that different countries achieve democracy in different ways. And Ghana is no exception. Even though our semblance of democracy is far advanced than other African countries, there is still a lot to be done. The situation whereby newly formed governments terminate contracts haphazardly because they were initiated by the opposing party results in grievious loss of capital to the nation. I understand that there is the issue of allegiance and what-nots, but at what point are we willing to forgoe the notion of allegiance to this or that political party, and trade it in for allegiance to the nation? Even within our local social setups, the head of a family determines the direction the family will follow, so the need for committed leadership with the interest of the country at heart is undoubtedly imperative.
With regards to employment and opportunities, these not only add to the national cake by way of money, but also lead to general human development which further enhances the chances of future development. With all the buzz about oil in Ghana, there is a lot of promise, but also a lot of danger, and we needn’t look further than Nigeria to realize that . When it comes down to the economy, I believe mismanagement is the bane of Africa’s existence. We say we don’t have money, yet Nigerians were able to raise over half a million dollars towards Obama’s campaign? Even with Obama’s visit (as with Clinton and Bush), Ghana spent extra money to clean the streets, paint houses and get Accra and Cape Coast in order for his arrival. Economic/business wise, I think it would be cheaper to maintain/clean a premisis regularly than to splurge on one rare moment. And if for nothing at all, aren’t the inhabitants of the nation worthy enough of humane environments and treatment? In this era of “green” attitudes, I’m quite surprised that African countries haven’t led the way in promoting solar and geothermal energy when we obviously receive greater(if not the greatest) percentages of sunlight than the U.S. and other developed countries. And yes, it is possible to export solar energy. If it doesn’t sound believable coming from me, then here’s a direct quote from President Obama to assuage your doubts: “From the Rift Valley to the North African deserts; from the Western coast to South Africa’s crops – Africa’s boundless natural gifts can generate its own power, while exporting profitable, clean energy abroad.”
With regards to health, Africa is plagued by many known diseases, and indeed has actually become the poster child for these diseases. From HIV/AIDS to Malaria, it would seem our very senses were being attacked by all the viruses known to man. When people think about health, the first thing they probably think about is a doctor. But pray tell me, how does this doctor get certified to treat his patients. The obvious answer would be education, but that aside, without research, many of the advancements in health and science would not be possible. Sure, many African governments allocate a substantial amount to health and education, but doing this without tying it in with research is backslacking on possibilities. In Ghana, a mere 1% of the budget is allocated to research. If we intend to have healthier and more productive societies, then we need to start thinking holistically. As Lauryn Hill would say, everything is everything. The circle of life extends to our institutions and market sectors – it is a give and take process.
It is often said that is takes hours to prepare a good meal, but merely minutes to consume it. Ignoring socio-economic and political tensions in a nation is like placing a frail egg (development) on one’s head and playing ampe. Unless you find a way to secure it, it is bound to fall down and break. In my article The North-South Development Divide in Ghana: Why It Could Be Ghana’s Downfall , I elaborate on how the “selective development” currently practiced by Ghana – and many African countries – breeds discontent and leads to conflict. We have numerous examples where the neglect of the concerns of specific groups in society impedes the development of that society. Even Malaysia – one of South East Asia’s shining stars, and Ghana’s one-time counterpart – has had to concentrate on solving its people’s racial, ethnic and socio-political issues in order to pursue development.
I hope I have adequately explained to you why I think Obama was just pointing to the obvious. All we need to do is look to our backgrounds and to history, in order to determine what our (common) problems are, and what the likely solutions might be. I am very optimistic about the potential for Africa to develop, and the fact that we have other countries’ case scenarios to learn from is a leverage we need to take advantage of. It is however imperative that we realize that nobody is going to do the grunt work. We need to do it ourselves. Although there are people and nations who might be willing to partner with us, at the end of the day, their allegiance lies elsewhere. I believe Obama’s presence has jumpstarted our belief in our capacity to do exceptional things, but whether that 0ptimism, drive and passion will be maintained, is up to us. Let’s stop living on the promise of tomorrow, and instead build on the possibilities of today. To adapt a line from the movie August Rush, “the solutions are all around us. All we have to do, is look.”
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.