We don’t have to do it alone: Lessons from Asia for Ghana

Written by Marie-Noelle Nwokolo

For Ghana, like other African countries, the Asian experience is instructive. There is a lot to be learnt, built on and challenged. It’s about time the country became more than the six decade-long ‘hope of Africa’ poster child.

I recently attended a book review on the lessons that Africa could learn, and not learn, from Asia, and it was one of the most enthralling conversations I have been party to. 

Sharing the room with the likes of ex-Nigeria president Olusegun Obasanjo, former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia and potential future presidents from western and southern Africa, it was an intellectually stimulating couple of days filled with poignant ideas, friendly friction and, of course, diplomatic banter. That aside, this round table offered many insights on Asia’s development experience. One of the most important being confronting the ill-suited use of the phrase “Asian miracle”.

The experience of many of the Asian – particularly East Asian – countries, was no miracle. Calling it such is a bit of an underhanded insult because it was no coincidence or undeserving occurrence; their success was one underlined by sweat, tears and intentional hard work – serendipity maybe, but no miracle. While many issues were discussed, the two main recommendations that caught my attention were: (i) Getting the basics right and (ii) Leadership. Not to say those are the silver bullets to “fix” Ghana, certainly not; they are however quintessential for achieving a mandate of inclusive growth and development.

Getting the basics right.

If ever a statement was true, it is this one: The East Asian tigers, as they were commonly called, invested heavily in infrastructure – physical and human. They put a premium on capital mobilisation and expansion by investing significantly in performance-based education. Realising that for their countries to increase productivity and reach the levels of economic output they needed a well-trained population that knew how to learn, understood the principles of absorbing and processing information, and had the skillset to innovate and improve on things, was imperative.

The laser focus on performance-based educational outcomes reshaped their human capital, and their efforts proved hugely beneficial. One only need look at the educational achievements of countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea to understand this fact.

In Singapore, literacy rates increased from 82% to 92% in two decades from 1979 to 2000, reaching a peak of 97% in 2018; Korea reached 100% in 2008 and Ghana, on the other hand, over the past two decades has only managed to increase its literacy rate from 57% to 79%. Commendable but insufficient. The historical influences and challenges each faced are not to be undermined, but on education, Ghana has much to catch up to – and it must be fast. An educated workforce is crucial to taking advantage of investment opportunities necessary for spurring economic growth and development. Without it, investors are unlikely to stay. No one likes to pour money into a sieve.

Similarly, investments in physical infrastructure were paramount to the growth of China and the Asian Tigers. In China, the power sector was at the core of its series of Five-Year Plans. Increasing electrification rates in both urban and rural places was key to economic and political survival. However, as we see from China’s air pollution, the reliance on coal-charged electrification is not the way forward.

Africa happens to be the site of massive solar and wind potential that is yet to tapped into, save for Morocco which offers insights on how to capitalise on our existing resources and avoid being a key culprit in the global climate catastrophe. For Ghana to attain sustainable development and improved livelihoods for its citizens, much needs to be done in infrastructure, such as electricity. Dependence on the Akosombo Dam cannot be the solution to Ghana’s electricity problems. Existing electricity capacity cannot withstand protracted low water levels, an increasing population with increasing domestic demands, and a desire to become an industrial powerhouse.

Climate change is likely to worsen the situation as sporadic and adverse weather patterns cripple the nation’s power supply unit. More important, the experiences of countries like Japan, China and Korea show that infrastructure, like education, is a necessary but insufficient factor to alter our development path. What marks one for distinction in the pursuit of growth is a combination of all of these, anchored by a consistent set of policy interventions that makes it impossible to return to earlier stages of underdevelopment when economies experience crises or shocks. The basics – electricity, education, roads, etc. – are essential for economic development, civic growth, improved living standards and addressing inequality. We cannot do without it.

Leadership.

The East Asian countries have showed a commitment to popular welfare, a narrative that does not appear to ring true for many African countries, including Ghana. Not on a consistent basis at least. On this side of the world, political leadership is not validated by performance but rather along loosely wound ethnic lines, delivery of white elephant projects, and deeply entrenched patronage networks among a circle of extended family and friends. 

The East Asian experience offers formidable – not without flaws – leaders like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew who were willing to make tough decisions, stick with them and demand action. He was committed to make change happen and everyone could tell – and he did. Contrary to the “big man” image typically associated with Lee, the reality of his leadership was much more a team effort than is usually presented. Lee Kuan Yew, as his memoirs reveal, relied on institutions and meritocratic rule in charting Singapore’s development path. As he observed, “We [Singapore] stand a better chance of not failing if we abide by the basic principles that have helped us progress: social cohesion through sharing the benefits of progress, equal opportunities for all, and meritocracy, with the best man or woman for the job, especially as leaders in government.” Similarly, such discipline of a competitive institutional meritocracy exists in other East Asia countries like Taiwan, Japan and China, notwithstanding their distinctive pasts. 

Many often point to another factor – “Asian-ness” – as the distinctive factor for the Asian tigers, but the Japanese and Germans were once considered lazy. Even so, there is Nepal and Myanmar on the same continent, but we won’t exactly point them out as shining stars, not yet at least. In reality, the last couple of decades have shown long-term thinking and smartness to adapt to the proclivities that came with industrialisation and the need for increased productivity. As they succumbed to discipline and standardization, efficiency and effectiveness became key features and hence their more successful trajectories. 

Take the cocoa sector for example: Ghana was for years a leading world producer and exporter of cocoa. Now, that’s Cote D’Ivoire. The reason for this can be traced to a stubborn attachment to the state-owned and controlled the Ghana Cocoa Board (Cocobod) which stifles creativity and limits private sector investment which could bring increased productivity, incomes and yield. As a result of the unwavering reliance on the state’s resources and a lack of competitiveness, investments are made with little regard to efficiency. Producer countries can benefit from either mitigating price decreases or ensuring maximum gains when global prices are high. By virtue of its bureaucracy and operations, Cocobod is unable to properly manage global price fluctuations to its advantage. What Ghana perhaps needs is to incentivise private sector involvement to spur farmer productivity and output increases as well as increase domestic manufacturing and processing of cocoa beans which fetch much higher value on the market (the global cocoa bean market is worth an estimated $9-billion, compared to a final consumer goods market of $87-billion). 

That said, cocoa holds a significant portion of economic and political relevance in Ghana due to its revenue contribution as well as voter population (Ghana has about 800,000 cocoa farmers). Governments are often reluctant to change the status quo and risk agitating a core voter group. To avoid political annihilation, researchers from the Brenthurst Foundation found that government must adopt a series of incremental policy reforms which permit private sector participation while maintaining a minimum price to protect its vulnerable farmers.

Everyone knows this but it’s as if everyone is passing the buck for fear of political reprisal, even to the detriment of the country’s macroeconomic performance. Singapore and the likes show that with a little discipline and political will, any leader can muster the art of getting things done and expect that from those around him, as Lee Kuan Yew was able to do.

There are many more lessons we can learn from the Asian development experience. Another lesson, quite dire for Ghana (as much of Africa) regards the agricultural transformation process – one of the most viable options for Ghana. There have been exciting and innovative solutions from the private sector in the agricultural space in Ghana but many of these need to be scaled up at a level and pace that require political will and directive. 

Obviously, the contexts in which the Asian countries developed are different: different times, different conditions, and different global priorities. Lest we forget, the Cold War and American desire to preserve their social, political and economic hegemony and the implications this had for ensuring certain counties did not “fail”.

Regardless, Asian countries did not become dependent on aid, they weaned themselves off it and catapulted their economies into increased levels of growth. Likewise, the popularly touted excuse of colonialism has run its course. It offers us no solutions. Countries like Japan and Vietnam show that you can rise above treacherous historical circumstances because even in spite of atomic bombs, nuclear accidents and chemical attacks, they managed to forge a different path. How? Through hard but good decisive choices, and tremendous investments in people and infrastructure. 

For Ghana, like other African countries, the Asian experience is instructive. There is a lot to be learnt, built on and challenged. It’s about time the country became more than the six decade-long “hope of Africa” poster child. Clearly, it’s not about what to do or why, it’s more a question of how. How to prioritise our priorities, how to reshape vested interests, how to build credible and self-sustaining institutions, how to create good incentives, how to get the right leader, etc. These are no easy questions, but it can be done.

Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Vietnam offer lessons on how to deal with these big questions and deep-seated issues. Even on the continent, countries like Ethiopia, Morocco and Rwanda are laser-focused on growth and its starting to show. Ghana could also become a success story, if we decide to make popular welfare our utmost concern. To be sure, these’s no panacea for Ghana’s development shortcomings but it’s a start. A tried and true start.

This article was origianlly published on The Daily Maverick.

© The Brenthurst Foundation 2019.