Founder and Director, The Access Project
Assistant Professor in Public Heath, Columbia University
There was a democratic buzz in the air the last time I traveled to Ghana. Presidential elections were under way, and I was lucky to be traveling with an aspiring candidate, Dr. Kwesi Botchwey, the country’s minister of finance in the eighties and early-nineties. Everywhere we traveled, Ghanaians were debating the challenges facing their nation and reveling in their increasingly vibrant and stable democracy.
That strong embrace of democratic ideals has not been lost on the Obama administration. The U.S. President’s visit to Ghana this past weekend was a symbolic move that now resonates across the continent. Rather than giving in to the temptation of having a homecoming in Kenya, Obama chose the West African nation as his first stop. It’s a sign of smart continental politics with a clear message: this administration values democratic values above all else.
During the time I spent in Ghana, I could see the national growth that was occurring each and every day. The country looks and feels as if it’s booming. Restaurants and hotels are springing up and economic growth is steady. Although it is unlikely that the President took it in, Ghana also has a thriving club scene complete with some of the continent’s best music.
The country’s major oil reserves will continue to help its economic growth substantially. Such findings in other nations have ironically often exacerbated corruption and poverty. You don’t need to look far to Nigeria to see that its oil riches have not translated into improved living conditions for the average Nigerian.
But Ghana has a chance to get the equation to work. I imagine President Mills spoke with President Obama about this issue. U.S. technicians could me invaluable to Ghana’s government by offering help to convert this newfound source of wealth into something more perennial. But these goals also depend on a healthy and well-educated population.
While we should certainly celebrate Ghana’s many successes, we must also keep in mind the areas where it falls short. While democracy continues to thrive, the nation’s poverty statistics are simply not in keeping with the nation’s relative wealth. It’s true that per capita income is roughly $600 per year; about twice as much of the income of the country I currently call home – Rwanda.
Nonetheless, Ghana’s health statistics and basic human development indicators have made relatively little progress over the last two decades, and this statistic is telling; 10 percent of all kids die before reaching the age of five.
Ghana’s history as a key post for slave trading was a symbolic backdrop for Obama’s visit – his visit with his family to the Cape Coast Castle underscored this point, but the real story to which we must pay attention is Ghana’s recent history. It was the first independent Sub Saharan African nation and it continues to shine as a beacon of hope. With the right partnerships and support, it could become even more.
Editor’s Note: Josh Ruxin, the founder and director of the Access Project, which develops public health programs in Africa. Ruxin is also a Columbia University assistant professor in public health.
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