The rise and rise of the African factivists – By Bright Simons and Jamie Drummond
Bono’s much-tweeted TED talk spotlighted Ghana, a West African country usually regarded as one of the continent’s better managed and more successful “˜lions’. Ghana’s journey towards ending extreme poverty – and zeroing out aid –has much to teach all African citizens and their development friends overseas, especially as the world contemplates the successors to the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.
How will Ghana ensure growth does indeed reach all citizens and inequalities don’t get entrenched? How can the development mistakes of the past be avoided going forward to accelerate progress and stop backsliding?
In 2007 the country took a turn for what statisticians call “˜low middle-income status’, meaning that average annual income started to quietly creep over $1,200 per capita. As the economy grows, tax revenues rise and extreme poverty declines, the government has more maneuvering room to prioritise the country’s long-term development needs and raise the resources to do so.
It is of course not all rosy in Ghana, as recent budget woes show, but the tone of the debate there seems more reminiscent of similar budget crises in America than of the usual scramble over absolute basics in the developing world.
But what do we mean when we say “˜extreme poverty’ is steadily becoming a memory rather than a reality in Ghana? The UN describes people as “˜extremely poor’ if they survive on less than a dollar and 25 cents a day. In Ghana, the number of people who qualify for this dubious badge has gone down from more than 50% to less than 27% in 20 years and on that trajectory should plummet to zero by 2025.
Extreme poverty data are often unreliable, but this positive trend is corroborated by other data on reductions in hunger, trends in family sizes, child mortality and so on. This trend is real. Ghana can take the extreme poverty rate to zero in ten years. The Zero Zone.
Zero – that is a number to remember. And rejoice over.
But it’s too soon to celebrate too much. Ghana, like most African countries, still has to grapple with entrenched inequality and extreme poverty in some parts. Take northern Ghana and the savannah region for instance. There, nearly 60% of the people fall within the unfortunate poverty bracket.
What is interesting is that Ghana now is in a position to develop an “˜internal Aid’ program. The government has set aside funds to finance special interventions in that part of the country. The Savannah Accelerated Development Authority, which was recently dogged with controversy over its investment choices, covers the northern region and could surely do with improved political oversight, but at least it’s a start. The program is uncannily similar to Aid from a rich country to a poor one, even using some of the same methodologies, but the Ghanaians are the ones in charge.
So how is Ghana making its money? Over the last decade and half GDP has grown nine-fold. The domestic tax base has expanded dramatically in absolute terms. This point is a bit complex, since as a share of GDP, the total take in taxes has actually declined from a high of 22% of GDP a decade ago to around 12% today. However, one needs to take into consideration how much GDP has grown over the period to realize how significant the current tax revenue amount of about $6.5 billion is in the historical scheme of things: it represents a fourfold increase in tax revenue over the decade.
Clearly, much depends on how effectively the government accounts for the use of these financial resources. All too often the focus is on corruption-prevention, and justifiably so. But it is becoming clear that “˜performance-accountability’ is just as important. Officials who turn out to be square pegs in round holes may not steal the funds, but they can waste it on poorly thought-through or executed schemes and the results would be no different.
The good news is that there is an avalanche of innovations which are helping fight such corruption and inefficiency. For example the World Bank’s Service Delivery Indicators help policy-makers and citizens precisely track resources into real results and should be more widely adopted and adapted throughout the continent. The Open Budget Index shows which budgets are open to citizens (Ghana does quite well, but South Africa and Botswana are the best on the continent), and the Mo Ibrahim Governance Index allows citizens to see how their government fares against its peers. Such initiatives as Revenue Watch, Publish What You Pay, Ghana Integrity Initiative, the Public Interest Accountability Committee, are all empowering people and well intentioned policymakers. These programs resonate with Africa-wide trends such as the African Peer Review Mechanism, the Africa 2.0 framework for mobilization (www.africa2point0.org), Goldkeys (www.goldkeys.org) and ONE’s advocacy in Africa amongst others.
By focusing on both the “˜informed masses’ whom Bono dubs “factivists”, as well as the technocratic elite, these innovations promise actual cultural change. That means going beyond formal educational systems and encouraging a “˜climate of ideas’. Ultimately these innovations help strengthen what we can call a country’s “ultrastructure”.These are the underlying systems that ensure that the brick and mortar developments and projects, or the infrastructure, as they’re usually known – road, rail, ports, dams, energy production, shopping malls, etc – can be financed, delivered, accessible, equitable, maintainable and ultimately transformational for all citizens and not just the urban elite.
Let’s briefly remind ourselves what’s to be avoided. Africa has had its fair share of mega-projects after independence, and when Ghana started its Akosombo Dam project it was at that time the biggest World-bank financed Program to date. The lack of adequate ultra-structure meant that the Dam could not support the industrialization Ghana was seeking, and today its most important offshoot, the aluminum smelter called VALCO, is a near-wreck operating at 20% capacity. Briefly ponder the 10 years and, by some estimates, the $16 billion spent by Nigeria over the last decade to fix that country’s chronic energy crisis. Recently, the government had to find ways of disposing of more than 300 shipping-container loads of electrical equipment in various stages of rust, abandoned for many years at the country’s ports, as projects floundered. Many are working hard to ensure these lessons are learned across the continent.
By recognizing some of these failures, and taking the experience seriously, Ghana has ensured stability, and managed to attract foreign direct investment in unproven areas such as deep offshore drilling outside the known petroleum belts. Last year, oil brought the country $581 million, not the billions initially anticipated, but significant nonetheless. Investments are now steadily pushing beyond the classic fare of construction and solid minerals into private healthcare, higher education, high-end tourism and pharmaceuticals. Many Ghanaians in the Diaspora, now that they can be dual citizens of Ghana and their host countries, are choosing to save in Ghana rather than where they live now, creating pools of cash that are finding their way into “˜meso-finance’ (a critical space between subsistence-level microfinance and multi-million deals) and the newly reformed pensions industry, among others. This isn’t just lifting people to a point where they can scrape by on a little over $1.25 income per day. It is slowly creating a confident middle class.
Every African nation is unique but there are some lessons from Ghana for Africa and the globe. Just as transparency and accountability are helping Ghana’s successful regions raise the revenues and deploy them effectively to help its more vulnerable regions beat extreme poverty, and along with that beating back desertification and extremists ideologies, so Africa as a whole can do more through greater integration, collaboration, and development cooperation. There is a largely ignored history here to build upon. For example Nigeria was for many years the key provider of energy discounts to its West African neighbours, shielding these countries from the harsh storms of the international oil market. The Gambian Judicial system has benefitted much from Ghanaian expertise; Nigerian finance experts are feeling more and more at home in Ghana; and South Africa is helping neighbours with tax and revenue collection expertise. In the 50th anniversary of the AU/OAU more such intra-African solidarity, bringing in the diaspora wherever possible through leveraging remittances and diaspora bonds and other investments, would be a great continental birthday present by Africa to itself.
The story of “Africa Rising” is much touted. Increasingly the quest for a more confident continental leadership is how the citizens of African nations can best help their vulnerable neighbours. It is also how Africans can engage global citizens concerned about extreme poverty on a more equal and more dignified footing. This suggests that African citizens and their global friends need to focus ever more on the transparency-accountability- measurability of all forms of development/transformation finance. We must campaign together to ensure money can be transparently traceable through the system – from external sources such as aid and foreign investment – especially in the corruption prone extractive sectors – to domestic sources such as corporate and individual taxation at national level, through the governmental budgetary system from national to regional to local village level. The “˜supply chain of development finance’ should at every level be fully visible – so that from a global to a local level citizens can track from resources to results.
For our part we are confident that the Millennium Development Goals can be achieved and exceeded leading to the virtual elimination of extreme poverty and deaths from preventable diseases, as well as hunger – so long as the ultrastructure is firmly in place. Going beyond the 2015 timeline for the MDGs, Africa can position itself to fulfill more than its potential to be a stable strong integrated global player, a region driven by its own citizens – but not unless we make a step-change investment into transparency, accountability and good ol’ open, high quality data and statistics. Deepen and enrich the continent’s ultrastructure, that is.
Sounds nerdy? Far from it. In his TED talk Bono coined the term “˜factivism’ – evidence based activism – and described a new generation of such connected campaigners who are seizing the opportunity opened up by new technologies to turbo-charge transparency, reinvigorate institutions and transform their world.
There is room for many more to join this movement and jump on board the post-2015 effort to re-focus from “˜poverty elimination’ to “˜opportunity maximisation’, recognizing that while the challenges of poverty tend to express themselves more in local terms, the opportunities of transformation often come in global cloaks. And it is precisely because it takes moving beyond the moral emotion of anti-poverty towards embracing the factual reality of opportunity that African factivists are coming into their own – and also why their overseas development friends are the ones now straining to catch up.
Bright Simons is the inventor of the World’s most widely adopted SMS anti-counterfeiting system (www.mpedigree.net) and a public interest researcher at Ghanaian think tank, IMANI
Jamie Drummond is the co-Founder of One (www.one.org) and was the global strategist for Jubilee 2000 Drop the Debt.