Comment & analysis
Ghana: why the North matters
Samuel Zan Akologo and Rinus van Klinken
2008-06-17, Issue 381
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Unequal and uneven development inherited from British colonialism by present day Ghana continues to divide the North from the South. For Samuel Zan Akologo and Rinus van Klinken "Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia and Togo are gory reminders" should serve as warning to the Ghanian leadership that it must change course.
The floods have gone. In September last year Northern Ghana briefly hit the head-lines with washed away bridges and destitute communities. Concerned citizens, benevolent donors and an opportunistic government responded with welcome relief. But now the situation has gone back to ‘normal’ and attention can go back to issues of national importance. As if the North is not part of the national agenda.
There is a natural reluctance to raise ‘the North’ as an issue. After all, is northern Ghana really so much disadvantaged compared to the rest of the country? Are the northerners the only poor people in Ghana? And is it not so that people from Northern Ghana are always complaining? Even if there is acceptance of a disadvantaged situation, this is then often accompanied by the thought that this is all rather inevitable. Considering the ecological conditions, the human resource base and the land-locked position, what is the economic potential of northern Ghana really?
In this article we argue, that there is a ‘special position’ of the North within Ghana. This has many and deep-rooted reasons. We think that to address this issue requires a deliberate effort. Not so much from international donors or civil society, but first and foremost from the government. What we have seen so far is not sufficient. There is a strong imperative for the national leadership to take note of the northern challenge. It is preposterous to think that middle income status can be achieved for Ghana by 2015 with the current pace of development in the North – more than one third of Ghana’s land mass and 20 per cent of the population!
The North – South divide in Ghana has gradually developed over time, and has become more marked and significant, even after Independence. If the slave trade affected all parts of present-day Ghana, northern Ghana was attacked from two sides by slave traders from the coast (trans-Atlantic) as well as from the hinterland (trans-Sahara) for export of slaves to America and the Arab world respectively. The Gate of No Return may create a vivid and strong symbolic image in the castles on the Coast, but for the Northerners there were so many more (and equally tortuous) slave routes to be whisked away on. The abolition of the slave trade did alleviate the situation, but did not stop the flow of human resources from the North.
Within the colonial administrative arrangements, the southern parts of Ghana became the Gold Coast Colony while the northern parts were administered separately as the Northern Territory. Granted that the developmental agenda of the British Empire in its formal colonies was rather limited, but for the Northern Territory it was entirely non-existent. The colonial government focused purely on ‘maintaining law and order’ and did not initiate any meaningful education in the North, even actively discouraging missionary efforts as from the White Fathers in Navrongo. Some secondary schools in the south are celebrating a 100 years of existence, and the University of the Gold Coast started in 1948, yet by the mid 1950s the entire North had six students in secondary school and one attending university. It is just a bit over 50 years ago that the first secondary school was established in Northern Region!
This educational discrimination served to preserve the status of the north as labour reserve for the mines and the plantations in the south. The only effective opportunities for economic advancement during the first half of the 20th Century for people from the North was migration. With no schooling and strong trading barriers, employment on the cocoa farms was often the only choice available.
The historical neglect is reinforced by ecological differences. Southern Ghana is humid and hot as part of the West African rainforest. Northern Ghana, in contrast, is part of the guinea zone, with less favourable conditions for agriculture. Not only does rainfall decrease the further north one travels in Ghana, but the rain is also concentrated in shorter periods with characteristic torrential rains. This leads to higher run-off, and coupled with soils poor in organic matter, crop production can only take place in one, often erratic, season. Yet, despite these more difficult conditions, many more households in northern Ghana are dependent on agriculture than in southern Ghana (72 % compared to 44 %). The land-locked nature of northern Ghana, linked to the Coast by one single road passing through the Kumasi metropole, severely limits alternative economic opportunities.
Independence did bring a change in the picture, but the differences between north and south in Ghana were not systematically addressed. To correct the historical imbalance and the ecological differences requires more than nation-wide policies and demands specific policy choices. The strong social policies of the Nkrumah era did boost education in the North, while the economic policies of the Acheampong regime brought some industrialisation (meat factory in Zuarungu, tomato factory in Pwalugu, groundnut factory in Bawku) and boosted commercial agriculture (rice and cotton). It was at that time that rice farms were so big that planes had to be used for spraying. Though these state-led policies did little to address the structural north-south divide, it did give Northern Ghana a chance to make a step ahead.
With the introduction of structural adjustment, projects and activities depending on the government were scaled down. While the idea of privatisation could somehow work in the South, as there was an elite and foreign companies to take over these activities, such conditions did not apply in the North. The factories ground one by one to a halt. Commercial farms went into receivership. Employment and income collapsed. The market players, who were to exploit the opportunities afforded by the withdrawal of the government, simply were not ready for it. Whatever economic elite had started to develop either sank back into obscurity or joined their brethren in the south.
Economic power goes hand in hand with political power. While the cocoa industry and the gold mines have traditionally been the basis for economic development in Ghana, it is no co-incidence that both are located in the south and that both have received favourable treatment, no matter the party or president in power. Mining may possibly have less potential in the North than in the South, but even that cannot be fully ascertained, as geological explorations in northern Ghana do not achieve the level of detail as the southern equivalents.
Even clearer is the discrimination when comparing the cocoa industry in the South to the shea industry in the North. The government since colonial time has heavily invested in the cocoa sector through research, extension, support to co-operatives and other farmer groups and investment in supporting infrastructure. Even in the market-driven environment of today the government retains a heavy regulatory hand in the cocoa industry.
Yet the shea industry, with similar economic potential, has been systematically neglected. No research, no extension, no investment in infrastructure, no regulation. The industry is left to the poverty-stricken women to collect a meagre income during lean times. Market agents then buy it opportunistically from the women at the time that they are looking for small cash in the ‘hunger season’ and hoard it till prices have risen. It ends up in the hands of a few multi-national companies. The fact that Ghana garnered over USD 1 billion in export from cocoa in 2006, compared to USD 30 million in export from shea is not just due to different economic potentials. It also demonstrates the effect of systematic policy neglect.
While economic policies have not favoured the North, government social interventions have done little to alleviate the situation. With 38 out of the 101 opposition members of Parliament coming from the North and the overall majority of northern MPs being in the opposition (38 out of 49), the government is not inclined to give the North favourable treatment in the allocation of resources. The paradox here is that continued neglect of ‘the Northern problem’ comes in the guise of ‘national policies’, not discriminating between Regions.
Economic policies are characterised by liberalisation and giving free reign to private actors. The private sector is the engine of growth. But the private sector will invest where conditions are most favourable. In the South the harbour is near; in the North it is at least one days’ drive away. In the South skilled and unskilled labour is available; in the North educational achievements are low. Infrastructure and climatic conditions are much better in the South than in the North. Probably the only advantage much of the North has (apart from the upper Regions) is abundance of land, but given the land tenure situation in Ghana and climatic conditions, that is difficult to translate in an economic gain. So, given the choice to invest in the South or in the North, which investor would indeed choose the North?
A similar logic bedevils social policies. National policies, ostensibly designed so as not to favour specific parts of the country, end up disadvantaging the North. The Ghana School Feeding Programme (GSFP) was originally conceived as a programme focusing on ‘Hunger Hotspots’, and was therefore targeted at the North. For obvious political reasons, the government decided instead to make it a national policy benefiting all districts equally. But with programme management using its discretionary powers, individual districts were able to lobby for additional schools. Inevitably, such districts were politically well connected and close to the physical and political centre. With as end result that Greater Accra, Ashanti and Brong Ahafo Regions receive a whopping 70 % of the total funding for school feeding (leaving the other 7 Regions to fight over the remaining 30 % of the funds). The three northern Regions, home to 30 % of the total poor in Ghana, receive a paltry 7 % of the funding! Just two districts in Brong Ahafo Region (Nkoranza and Atebubu) have an equal number of schools in the programme than the entire North (consisting of 34 districts)! One of those districts was the site of a parliamentary bye-election in 2006. In the struggle between political expedience and pro-poor policies, the former reigns supreme. With no political muscle to speak of, the North systematically looses out.
The distribution of HIPC funding tells a similar story. The Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative was an attempt by the World Bank and IMF to reduce the debt burden of the world poorest countries. One of the first major policy initiatives of the new NPP government when it attained power in 2001 was to apply for HIPC status. A special account was opened, whereby the money which otherwise would have been used for debt re-payment would be channelled to special spending targeted at the poor. But once again the reality was different. While the Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy 2003-2005 planned that almost half of the HIPC funds would be used in northern Ghana, in reality this was only 17 %, just about one third of what was planned! The remaining 83 % of the projects went to southern Ghana, for which only 52 % had been planned.
It cannot be denied that northern Ghana has recorded considerable progress since independence. But the North on most of the social and economic indicators is still far behind the South. Only in a few instances is the gap narrowing. In terms of social indicators, school enrolment in the three northern Regions is still the lowest in the country, even though the gap is narrowing. Yet, while over half of the population in the South is literate (54 %), in the North this is still less than one third (32 %)!
More worrying is that particularly in the economic field, the gap between North and South is widening. In the whole of Ghana in 1992 some 52 % of the population were living below the poverty line. By 1999 it was down to 40 %,. However, for the same period in three regions the poverty actually increased, of which two were located in the North. In Upper East Region the increase was by 32 %, and by 1999 almost 90 % of the people there were considered living in poverty. Out of every 10 people, 9 are poor! Take away the people with access to some income, e.g. teachers, civil servants, some traders and households benefiting from remittances, and just about everybody else is poor.
Some projections have been done on what could happen to poverty in Ghana by 2015, if policies and international conditions do not change. The prediction is that in 2015 the poverty head count will be down to 23 % for Ghana, a further decrease of 40 % since 1999. But the same projections indicate poverty figures in the three northern Regions between 60 and 70 %, hence without ‘the burden of the North’ poverty in Ghana would be down to 10 % in 2015. While the Northern Region in 1992 was 11 % behind the national average, by 2015 this will be 33 %, so the gap is widening. Similarly for Upper East (from 15 % behind the national average in 1999 to 47 % in 2015) and Upper West Regions (from 36 % to 44 %).
Colonial policies for the North were characterised by brazen neglect and systematic discrimination. Policies and attitudes need to change, if the North is to catch up with the South and fully integrate into the glorious nation of Ghana. There is no alternative. The evidence is there for all to see what happens if discontent over regional differences erupts into serious national conflicts. Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia and Togo are gory reminders of that sordid reality. Fortunately, there are no indications that such is likely to happen now in Ghana. The northern elite is divided, and there is still an economic safety valve through migration, though intra- and inter-ethnic conflicts are far too prevalent. But it does also not need to happen.
The personal route out of poverty for northerners has almost invariably consisted of migration to the south and beyond. And the favoured role for the elite, be it modern or traditional, has been pleading for special government projects or the lobbying for special attention from donors. The political elite, consisting of all the District Chief Executives and Regional Ministers from the three northern Regions, has regularly met over the past few years in what has come to be known as the Mole series. But the Mole series are dominated by the discussion of government and donor projects, rather than in lobbying government for policies, addressing key concerns of the North. The northern elite needs to catch up with the reality that projects, distributed like peanuts to favoured sites, does not bring social and economic development.
Likewise, the role of donors has shifted in northern Ghana, as elsewhere in the world. The era of the 1980s and particularly the 1990s was for northern Ghana dominated by bilateral and multi-lateral agencies, implementing projects either through government or more recently through NGOs. This almost gave the impression as if the government was taking care of the southern part of Ghana, leaving the northern part to international partners. The myriad of signboards for local NGOs in northern Ghana, particularly in Tamale, is a visible remnant of that time. But times and tides have changed. Led by the World Bank, national ownership of development policies is now seen as the only way to bring home-grown development, and many donor agencies are situating their policies within the Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy. For some this leads to the pooling of resources, either through Multi-Donor Budget Support or through Sector Wide Approaches (SWAp) for specific sectors. For others, it is more the situating of their projects within larger processes. As GPRS 1 and now 2 do not give specific and systematic attention to the North, donors cannot be expected to do so.
There is no alternative to the government taking leadership in breaking down the barriers blocking social and economic progress in northern Ghana. That is not only in the interest of northern Ghana, but also in the interest of southern Ghana.
*Samuel Zan Akologo is the Ghana country director of SEND Foundation while Rinus van Klinken is affiliated with SNV Ghana.
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