Monday, September 5, 2011

September 5th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Credit must go to where credit is due, and that, this week, must go to the Ghana Civil Aviation Authority. It appears (awaiting written confirmation) that they have waived all charges related to the inspection and opening of a small community rural airstrip – Kudos to the GCAA! It was a wonderful moment when we went in to settle a demand for charges, which had previously been notified to us, on a community strip. The community in question had worked hard, as had others, with no financial reward nor incentives, to be told by the official in the office ‘There is no need for you to worry about that, the authority is covering it’. Fantastic, that is the spirit of development that we need to see. The best part of this is that it was done with a smile and a real ‘go-get-em’ energy that gives me encouragement to support more rural communities and see many more rural airstrips opened in our fantastic country! Let us hope that this is the start of a new trend in the approach of the different authorities in their treatment of rural, low finance, poor infrastructure communities – who make an effort to help themselves. Ayekoo, Ghana Civil Aviation Authority, Ayekoo, and a bigger Ayekoo to the rural community in question!

One of the challenges to rural development, in any part of the world, is infrastructural access. Whether such access is to water, electricity, telecommunications, roads, water transport or air via a small dirt airstrip, any one of these can increase a community’s potential many fold. The more barriers that are put in the way to provision and exploitation of that access, the longer the community itself is retarded in its development, and with it the Nation.

In a vibrant discussion about provision of such facilities to the many thousands of communities in Ghana that have no access for a motor car, let alone a truck, it was expressed to me that, in essence, until there are roads we cannot go and install power, water, or even inspect airstrips. – such an idea should have the Ministry of Roads and Highways in a spin and every District Assembly turning around like tops in a hurricane!

Much as it would be wonderful to have roads, even just a track that a car or truck could navigate at more than a few kilometres per hour, it is simply not going to happen overnight – and frankly it is not something that is present in many other countries either.

So many people in the developing nations, and Ghana included, are caught in the ‘catch 22’ of development. They can do a certain amount with their own labour and resources, and many communities are already, and more willing to do so, making improvements to their portion of the planet; however, they do not have cash resources and they do not have labour resources to do much more than maintain their immediate facilities. Therefore, the many, many communities that are isolated, along a walking track that may see a bicycle once in a blue moon, are pretty much forgotten people… worse than that, they are ‘invisible people’.

When you live off of the land in one of our many truly rural locations, you often live in a subsistence farming environment. Such people are hard-working, industrious, generally exceptionally welcoming and are ready to share the little that they have with whoever may come their way. These citizens of Ghana are many, their communities ranging from an extended family to a couple of hundred people. You may well be a beneficiary of their labours, for they often sell their excess produce at a very low rate, only for it to be taken to the city and sold on at a relatively massive profit, for your delight.

Already, such people are taxed by those better off, not in cash terms, but rather in terms of ‘withholding of infrastructure’. Without infrastructure they have limited choices;

a) Remain in their condition, live hand-to-mouth and keep the life-expectancy of Ghana around the 2009 figure of 56.8 years that it is now. (down from 59.1 in 1995) 

 b) Leave their communities, abandon them and move to other communities – such as the cities, in the pursuit of a slim chance of better opportunities. 

 c) Develop their own community, demonstrate that they have a community worth investing in and improve their own lot, as a community.

Option a) is not an option, we all know that, but it is the defacto action for many due to the challenges of b) and c).

Option b) is a popular one, take a look around the cities and larger communities in Ghana, the number of ‘economic migrants’ is growing as the cost of surviving, let alone living, continues to rise. Most of these ‘eco-migrants’ are disappointed. Some end up begging on the streets, most end up living a ‘less happy life’ than in their place of origin, but are, in practical terms, ashamed to return – often spinning ‘tales’ of their Dick Whittington like transformation.

Options c) is what we all know is the best option – it is clear, and does not take an economist nor a politician to tell you that! So, why is c) not working?

Most of these communities are not looking for money… they are looking for opportunity. So, when an opportunity comes their way they are ready to make an effort towards it, often a full-community effort. 

Let us assume that a community, far from other ready access, with limited health and education infrastructural support, were to create a simple and useable air strip, it can be done in many communities, with community labour, in a matter of days, as has been proved in the middle of the Amazon jungle many times over. In today’s environment that strip is unable to be used by those willing to fly in with health care until a lengthy and expensive ‘assessment’ is undertaken by the Ghana Civil Aviation Authority. The charges system is based on the time taken to inspect the strip. Of course, the more rural the strip, the more costly the inspection in terms of labour and resources - especially when there is no road to reach the community by! Approvals can take many months (even years), and, assuming the charges could be funded, the time from application to inspection is so long that the community is unlikely to maintain the ‘usable in practice but not yet useable by regulation’ strip.  

 Many proposals have been made to simplify this process, perhaps a community may construct a suitable strip for non-commercial, non-profit related use, and provided that the strip is notified to the authorities, may be used as long its usage is reported on, at no charge – since that would be recognition of a community ‘self-help’ approach? This has been written about to the authority and tabled many times, but perhaps now, as we see our GDP growing, it is time to pass some ‘exceptions’ to allow those in need to gain access without the taxation of delay and hindrance to their own efforts?

The decision to go ahead with one rural airstrip without charges is the tip of an iceberg – it demonstrates a positive action towards rural development through light aviation, as once proclaimed by Kwame Nkrumah himself, and hopefully a return towards the opening of as many, if not more, light aircraft strips as there were in 1957. I look forward to a brighter light aviation future and to reporting on it as it grows!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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