Us and them: When donor and country perspectives differ

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ImageMuch can be learned from Ghana in the area of Governance and Anti-Corruption. It is a society proud of its history and culture, wary of foreign advice, and conservative at heart, yet one able to renew itself regularly thanks to a culture of debate and questioning.

I was recently part of a Bank presentation on the Africa Development Indicators report focusing on quiet corruption to a group of NGOs and CSOs in Accra. The report argues that small corruption – in clinics and schools – has dramatic social costs, with Africa being the worst transgressor. The report advocates using social accountability (as prescribed by the World Development Report 2004) to keep public servants in check. The day of the presentation, the videoconferencing connection (with DC and ten other capitals) was pretty lousy, and so after a while, we decided to mute the microphone and have our own conversation. This was very informative, and I learned many new things about Ghanaian society.

The initial feelings of the participants were ones of outrage… at us. The participants thought that the Bank was exploiting African difficulties in order to sell another report (the “lords of poverty” syndrome). This was their fight, not ours. Some accused us of obfuscation to protect the corrupt corporations that exploit Ghana’s natural resources. These feelings were deeply felt. It is interesting that the Doing Business Indicators do not elicit as much passion, maybe because we offer them with little of our own advocacy attached. Social activists like our indicators, as long as we leave the indicators to them to use in their own fights. Frankly I can relate to this – I never trusted the holier-than-thou foreigners that came to my own country to lecture us or convert us.

Once the outrage had subsided, I managed to structure the discussion a bit. Everyone agreed that silent corruption was endemic, but they rejected our call to organize parents and beneficiaries to push back on the state and try make it accountable. They thought that this was unrealistic. When school spots are limited, people are nice to the school master to have a chance to get their kids admitted. The poor need to fight for themselves and do not have the luxury of fighting on behalf of the whole community, especially when that comes at a cost. After initially feeling disappointed, I found this sentiment profound. What I learned from our discussion is that our much touted civil-society-driven accountability model can only work if we put equal effort into getting the state to agree to an internal system of vertical accountability – vertical and horizontal accountability need to act as complements not substitutes.

After the first hour, the conversation among the Ghanaians became more intimate (by then, those of us from the Bank had been shamed into silence): “Discipline is not how it used to be! There is a rising culture of impunity!” Social cohesion has been lost! Things are bad!" Why? There were many opinions – a relic of colonialism when the “it is not your father’s house” syndrome encouraged laxity and looting; a failure to replace the military discipline of the post-independence big men with a more elaborate system of governance based on old traditions of community and service; or simply the wages of civil servants are below the minimum living wage. There were also many solutions proposed. At the end, participants left satisfied that they had gone further than usual in their discussion and analysis and were determined to continue to push until workable solutions emerge. I was left convinced that the most important part of my job is to serve people like this through reports, coffee, and providing them as much support as I can so they can figure out how to lead their own fights.


Ishac Diwan

Lecturer on Public Policy

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