It was fascinating to watch Mubarak, Abdullah, Netanyahu, and Abbas-a rogue’s gallery of oppressors and human rights violators if there ever was one-talk seriously about peace and protecting human and civil rights and expanding freedom while sitting a continent away from either Jerusalem or Washington, or in my case in Accra, Ghana, on the southern end of West Africa.
Here most people I meet have no more than passing interest, if that, for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have plenty of other issues to take up their time much closer to home.
Ghana is routinely touted as one of Africa’s “success stories” because of its political stability. Certainly the United States has invested a lot in this idea; the US Embassy complex rivals the Presidential Palace in size.
However a closer look at the economic statistics underlying that claim underscores what a miracle the country’s stability is, considering that Ghana ranked 152 out of 189 countries in the latest Human Development Report, poorer even than Yemen, the Sudan, Haiti and even violence torn Pakistan and the Congo.
Only Afghanistan and even more desperate sub-Saharan countries rank lower, this despite a strong base of natural resources (the country wasn’t known by Europeans as the Gold Coast for nothing) and agriculture, as well as recently discovered oil. As Forbes magazine recently commented, Ghana “shouldn’t be poor, but it is.”
Per capital income ranks at a deplorable (and for almost anyone who can read this article online, unimaginable) $621. Travelling around the city’s environs with an Egyptian friend, we couldn’t help remarking how much poorer Accra is than Cairo-Egypt ranks around forty places higher than Ghana on the Human Development Index, with traffic and pollution that in scale if not sheer size rival its long-lost sister city 4,200 kilometres to the northeast (in one of the most famous political marriages in African history, the first President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, married an Egyptian, Fathia Nkrumah, to unify the north and sub-Saharan regions of the continent).
In the northern countryside people often live in huts and sleep with their livestock, while children walk around with distended stomachs (malnutrition is the greatest source of mortality for children) even though the land is fertile, in good measure because of the focus on growing for export and a mismanaged agricultural sector.
Not surprisingly, the IMF considers “Ghana’s problems are mostly homegrown.” To be sure its leaders, whether 18th century chiefs who expanded their wealth and power through selling fellow Africans into New World bondage, or the corrupt politicians of today, deserve their share of blame for Ghana’s current problems.
However it is the height of blindness and hypocrisy to declare that four centuries of slavery and colonialism, from which Europeans and the West more broadly benefited far more than local elites, are irrelevant. Further more it would be disingenuous to ignore the impact of decades of international loans that has bestowed a hard-to-service national debt that helps fuel the export of raw materials rather than developing indigenous industries that could create and keep more capital at home.
Certainly Ghanaians have very little, and deserve much more-although it’s worth noting that the carbon footprint of the average Accran is far closer to what is ecologically sustainable globally than that of the average Angelino, Londoner or Dabawi. But if Ghana needs significant economic and human development, how can that be achieved in a way that doesn’t produce far higher inequality and environmental degradation, as it has in so many other developing countries?
Therein lies the great problem facing the country. Ghana’s “success” is that despite its continued economic woes, it hasn’t become unstable, become a haven for extremists or turned anti-American. But it’s hard to say how long will Ghanaians remain quiescent in the face of such poverty when their country has so much potential.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.