Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
One of my first consultancy contracts in Ghana was related to the TIP (Trade and Investment Programme) - working with CEPS (Customs Excise and Preventive Service) and MOTI (Ministry of Trade and Industry). My interactions went further and included GIPC (Ghana Investment Promotion Council), GSS (Ghana Statistical Service) and, of course, BOG (Bank of Ghana). In fact, I quickly learned that Ghana has more acronyms and alphabet soups than any CAA (Civil Aviation Authority). Consequently, it was not surprising that my principal involvement in development was in relation to a system baptised 'CEDIS' (Customs Export Data Information System).
CEDIS was installed at the major ports as well at MOTI and CEPS HQ. Each month the export data was collected, entered, cleaned and reported on. Quarterly bulletins were produced, distributed and sold. My life became centred around the monitoring and promotion of NTEs (Non Traditional Exports) - and with it, a remarkably positive change in Ghana's economy. TIP (Trade and Investment Programme), then TIRP (Trade and Investment Reform Programme) and finally TIPCEE (Trade and Investment Program for a Competitive Export Economy) were advanced development programmes, designed to underwrite economic growth for the people of Ghana.
The basic understanding that we need to export our goods in order to earn foreign currency, and become a global player in trade, was my daily bread. Working on development programmes that enabled individuals was exciting - and rewarding. Overall, I believe that the work I did between 1995 and 2005 contributed positively towards the development of Ghana's trade growth. I worked alongside well known names from both poles of the political magnet - seeing them at their best - and their worst. They each have positives and negatives - and failure to accept that would be a mistake. I have no political allegiances, and I am fully committed to the positive development of Ghana.
Since 2005, I have refrained from working in the policy and trade areas, and focused on social entrepreneurship opportunities in engineering, health and aviation. Working with international support programmes is fine, but they can only lay basic foundations during a three or four year development project (or a sequence of programmes). All it takes is a change of government, minister, director - or attitude - and the whole effort is diverted, apparently lost without trace - not unlike the mystery of flight MH370!
I remain passionate about development in Ghana, because this is my home. I have settled here. I am an 'adopted Ghanaian', with a wonderful Ghanaian wife. We believe that Ghana can do and be so much more - and that the calm, welcoming, good hearted, majority of the Ghanaian people are worth the sacrifices and efforts that are needed to be living and working in Ghana today.
Please read my following thoughts, from the heart, for the love of Ghana and everybody living here:
There is much discussion as to whether Ghana is in a crisis right now. Well, there will always be two sides to that coin! My side, is the side of the rural dwellers and, of course, how the social enterprise that I am involved with, are affected. On those counts I can declare, without doubt or hesitation that we are already in a severe and hard biting crisis. On the core business front, our revenues over the past 24 months have dropped over 90%. People can no longer afford luxuries - ex-pats are reducing their in-country spending, through lack of confidence, and - in the past weeks - the currency control system has made it impossible for us to operate anywhere near effectively. We depend on US dollar purchased items to grow engineering and aviation in Ghana - and now we cannot fuel our growth. It is simple, those earning in local currency have lost so much value - with their costs rising quicker than a cruise missile on launch. Foreign currency earners are losing the confidence to bring their earnings into the local economy. 'Confidence' is a word I will use a lot today. Some folks have left already, and many are considering leaving - ex-pat and Ghanaian. Two or three years ago, if you asked a business executive 'Can you tell me something positive about the economy?', the confidence was really high... today, that same question will result in a deafening silence.
Despite the economic struggles, we will not give up; we are rapidly exploring alternative revenue streams to weather this challenging economic storm. Yup, to me, and those around me, we have a crisis. A deepening crisis.
It is one thing to complain, but I was always told to 'bring solutions, not problems', so what could be a solution? First, let us understand where we have come from, and consider those early 1990's - when currency controls were in place, it was hard to export or import, there were very few tourists, etc. Even the airport cargo operations were chaotic, with exports rotting on the tarmac. I came along at that very time. I believe that my subsequent work contributed a little bit towards the development trends for which Ghana was applauded. So, what were the key components that moved Ghana forwards then?
a) Listening: to the advice of those who want to see Ghana develop. It should be understood clearly that 'foreigners' are not interested in collapsing Ghana... not at all.. despite the rhetoric. They really want Ghana to flourish - so that all Ghanaians can afford to purchase from their economies. Donor nations and investing companies are not vampires - they are not parasites - they are not altruistic either! They really want a symbiotic relationship. The want give and take. They are like the healthy bacteria in your body. They get something from you, and you give something to them - together we are both stronger. Take one away from the other and both suffer. I remember the so called 'conditionalities' of the 1990s - and the fights over them. 'We will release this to you if you implement this or that'. It is normal - it is how the world goes around - and if you don't want to play, you can become isolated, and take the consequences. Through appropriate conditionalities, and the work of teams interested in helping to move Ghana forward as a trade player on the international markets, by the mid to late 1990's we were witnessing growth and development - and people beginning their exodus from poverty, as momentum was established.
b) Privatisation: Governments around the world have proved resoundingly that they cannot run businesses. Simple. Running businesses is not the work of Government. Their role is to create a confident and positive environment for businesses to do business in. No matter how you feel about the selling of 'One Touch' to Vodaphone, we all now have much better telecommunications because of it. Furthermore, the Government of Ghana was relieved of a financial albatross, and today enjoys more tax, licence fees, etc - and more people are gainfully employed, with more skilled jobs, because of those changes. Other countries privatised - and it has worked. I hate the current hullabaloo about the Atuabo Free Port development - because, some say, 'It should be built and operated by Ghana Ports and Harbours (GPHA)'! I am certain that if the Government of Ghana and its agencies were to rent out the Ports at Tema and Takoradi to a well experienced operator (yes, a foreign one, with a local partner - but not some consortium of cronies, which would, of course, be unlikely), even at a peppercorn rent, the medium to long term efficiency, resultant revenues - and job creation (skilled and unskilled), would catapult the whole economy forward. Regardless of pride, we need to allow rapid development of new ports and other facilities if we are to boom. If the investors are ready to come - welcome them! Look what happened at Kotoka International Airport (KIA) when the AfGo operation started in 1994 (a deal with Gatwick Handling from the UK) - it changed air cargo operations - so positively! When the Rawlings regime signed the KIA handling contract there was great opposition - but today we all enjoy better air cargo - and let us be honest, it created jobs, training and brought our airport standards up - and there is more revenue for the government too. The short term management contract, under the Kufour Government, for GWCL (Ghana Water Company Ltd) made operations smoother, more efficient, provided skills transfer and increased revenues - leaving trained people behind in the system!
c) Confidence: was built into the system. The Ghana Investment Promotion Council (GIPC) had a policy of support and encouragement to the smallest investor. The ease of visa access - and to some extent the 'visa-on-arrival' (which has not yet reached full potential) enabled many people to come to Ghana and experience that 'Great Ghana Akwaaba'. Ghana became the 'Golden Child', and the craft markets boomed - the hotels grew and, even before the 'oil boom', there was perceivable improvement in personal wealth, and sustained growth of the middle class - whether connected to an investor operation or not.
d) Currency: the freedom of currency - elimination of the currency control forms - the introduction of the 'off shore' account - the free zones development - the ability for an exporter to receive foreign currency and use it freely to obtain a great deal - purchase new inputs for their farms - or new equipment. That freedom allowed people to keep their money in Ghana - and in the banks - in whichever currency they wanted - with confidence.
e) Infrastructure: was visibly being addressed - roads, power, water, telecoms - you could see that 'something was happening' - it had its stops and starts, but there was an overall positive feeling to it all.
f) Corruption: (in fact all of the various abuses of public office) appeared to be much less in the past than it is now. For example, I remember in the 1990s a young Peace Corps volunteer speaking, albeit out of turn, about corruption affecting her rural project at a cocktail event - and being heard by the President... within forty-eight hours, action was being taken, people moved, questions asked - and all because the putrid scent of corruption was seen as an affront on development and an insult to the people of Ghana. Corruption will always take place, and will always be hard to prove - and thus action must be taken on trust - and it should be swift - or the smell will stifle those near it, and keep others away.
So, what has changed?
a) Listening: appears to be going out of fashion. We have some great minds speaking out right now, but it seems that 'if you are not wearing the right colours - of skin or party - and not singing to the right tune' you are 'off frequency' and simply not being heard. Who cares where a person comes from, or which party they belong to, or whether they belong to a party at all? If they are speaking sense, let us take it on board - and stop the personality politics, PLEASE. There is talk of 'going to the IMF' for a bail out - and if we do we will have to listen to the IMF rules! Why not start now, with our in-country people? Surely it is better that we listen, and act, before we are forced to embrace the shackles of an IMF bail out?
b) Privatisation: really could offer a rapid resolution to so many things. I realise that we have developed a less attractive economy recently, and thus decreased the value and attractiveness of our assets, but we could still 'offer concessions for', 'rent-out', 'lease' or 'licence' many of our assets to boost growth, and reduce costs. Utilities, sea-ports, airports, lake-ports, state transport solutions (road and lake), in fact any area that the government is still unsuccessfully 'trying to do business' in, could be removed from the public burden, made more efficient, increase training opportunities and thus boost long-term employment and development by strategic partnerships. So, what is the problem with making that happen? Basically companies are getting frustrated whilst trying to cut such deals. They imply that there is too much corruption, nepotism, wheeling and dealing and general 'delays' around agreements - and that has to be chased out of the system immediately. Then, and only then will we see the serious, competent and long-term minded investors bring their much needed skill, money and development to our nation. They have 'other country options', and so we must make the 'Ghana option' more attractive.
c) Confidence: is getting harder to find these days - even amongst some of the 'incumbent party faithful'. Confidence needs to be restored - and fast. When I speak to business people they feel that they have lost confidence in what will happen next. 'Will the currency collapse?' 'Will they reverse the banking decisions in May or June... or ever?' 'Will I get a visa?' 'Will the tax office be correct with me?' 'Will I get paid?' 'Will I be able to afford fuel next month?' 'Will there be fuel available next month?' 'Will I have power/water for my production?' 'Will the road/bridge/etc be completed in time?' 'Will the contractors be paid by Government?' These are issues that really do affect us all - because if they affect a current business, or dissuade an investor, they affect the entire economy. Confidence must be rapidly restored to our systems. Whilst we are at it, let us not forget restoring confidence in tourism; we could, perhaps, do away with short-term visas to boost visitors to Ghana. Why not allow the first 2 weeks in Ghana without a visa, for visitors from selected countries - such as those with a positive history of interacting with our nation? I hear so many complaints about obtaining a visa for Ghana - and some even abandon applying when they perceive other countries as more welcoming of their spending. Why not simply charge a reasonable visa-on-arrival charge (or on-exit as Taiwan did to boost business visitors)? If you want to stay more than 2 weeks, then you should be able to quickly, and without hassle, get a visa sorted out - we need more visitors, and their cash - who knows, they may even become investors! Foreigners bring currency to our economy - lots of it - so why not bring them in, let us boost the airlines, airports, hotels, tourist destinations and craft markets with foreign currency and a brisk trade! Many small drops really do make a mighty ocean! At the same time, we should re-introduce the small investor options at the GIPC - because the new rules have stopped the 'small foreign investor in small Ghanaian business' options - and that is negative for overall development.
d) Currency: Oh, boy, I really fail to grasp what possessed us to take the most recent, negative impact on business, foreign currency decisions - and fail further to understand why we have not reversed those actions... So, let us work towards re-establishing a fairly stable local currency - but please, at the same time, make it easy for all in the country to take, change and bank foreign currency too - it is money after all! Rural areas possibly suffer the most... the nearest public, 'licensed' Forex Bureau to where I live is about 50km away - and they are not open on a Sunday either... Please, allow people to spend their money freely (Ghana Cedis, US Dollars, British Pounds, Euros, etc) - and with confidence - I promise it will help boost the economy - and investment.
e) Infrastructure: the current approach appears rather haphazard to me. We see more potholes than roads under development around the country... our transport infrastructure is not improving. It is becoming more and more evident that we have a power crisis developing, with industry experts unsure as to whether gas can even be put on line this year. The lake level is dropping as we rely more on hydropower (we have about 11ft to drop to the 240ft minimum, and the levels normally only start to rise again in July). The thermal power plants seem to be having challenges... the load shedding is touching all on the National Grid. Simply put, 'without a stable infrastructure you cannot have sustainable industry'. Stable power, safe and reliable water, well maintained roads, good quality (affordable) fuel supplies along with working data and voice telecoms - are the base upon which our country will grow its exports - and thus its economy - sustainably. It is good to talk about these things - and I love the regular headline promises - but talk is not enough, they need to be in place, reliable, functional and affordable. There appears to be a feeling that we have a less stable, and in some ways retrogressive, infrastructural outlook at this time. We need to reverse that - not with talk, but with prompt action. We hear that the government doesn't have the money (or needs to borrow it) for needed developments? Then, we should give industry players the real freedom to work - reducing bureaucratic overheads, cutting delays, taking away any nepotistic demands, refraining from implied cronyism related constraints and simply giving them business development freedom. What is wrong with enabling those with the money and the skills to grow our industries and create jobs? Many industries want to bring experts in to do the job, and to do the job well - and THEN to train the local staff.... that is the way around that it has to work - if you want fast results - it must all be working, profitable and sustainable, before sustainable skills transfer can securely happen. There appears to be too many artificial restrictions imposed on development projects which are strangling growth - making investment unattractive. We must accept that Ghana lacks sufficient suitable, trained and able to deliver skilled personnel. It will take many years to secure the skills set within the national labour force. Our graduates may be bright - but they lack experience (and often the relevant knowledge set) - and thus they must accept starting work at the bottom, getting their hands dirty. Then they can honourably and proudly work their way up to their level of aspiration. In the short term, it means that we need those with experience from outside to come and be the mentors - and for them to spend their money with confidence in our local economy! Whilst we are at it, why not make such skilled, economically desirable foreigners more welcome? Is there any reason not to let them bring their families and settle in Ghana? Long term residents visas, perhaps a simple naturalisation process for those who want to make Ghana home could be made more readily available. Sadly, too many feel unwelcome and chased away (including those from the Diaspora) - and that is really not good for our development. Take a look at the UK, it welcomes millions of non-British folks, many of whom naturalise... it is estimated that over 2,500,000 foreign born individuals are living in London alone. In fact London has 270 different nationalities living and working in it - because it needs and wants them! London has a vibrant Ghanaian population of many tens of thousands, which probably makes London amongst the top cities with Ghanaians living in it, anywhere in the world - including Ghana!
Finally, it is the lack of a clear and cohesive plan that is frustrating - whether short or long term - a plan with everybody knowing their role within, and how it benefits the overall plan and objectives is necessary. For example, when we are building an aircraft, everybody knows which part of the plane they are building, and are proud of it. If you cannot see the big picture, and do not feel a part of the big plan, you are just pulling rivets and cutting metal, and it has no meaning, no purpose and there is no team spirit which leads to a loss of pride and the end result is not going to be what anybody hoped for.
Let us all work to restore confidence in all the people in Ghana - our nationals, our investors and our tourists - let us do it together, and without delay.
Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and Pilot/Engineer with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics (www.waasps.com www.medicineonthemove.org e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)