For me, visiting Ghana was a chance to see a small and intimate part of the African continent, a continent that I wasn’t sure I would ever have the opportunity to set foot on. As a Navy veteran, I was also curious to see how different a developing country in Africa was to the developing countries in the Asian Pacific that I had visited while station on the U.S.S. Blue Ridge. Though the people and cultures are different, they share many of the same problems and concerns. What has stood out the most to me, especially with my more in-depth experiences in Ghana, is how important good government is and what is required of the governments of developing countries to bring their people out of poverty and advance their economies.
For the first time in Ghana, I got to visit another country’s local schools. Even though I had seen television specials and read articles about the struggles and poor states of education in poor countries, it still shocked and saddened me. The very simple facilities, the crowded classrooms, and the lack of basic school supplies were immediately evident. Add to that the high rates of students who drop out because they are female and lack access to feminine hygiene products, students who are too poor and at times too weak from hunger to go to class, the absence of support for students with disabilities or learning difficulties, and child trafficking. I felt sad and hopeless in the face of such huge obstacles to the basic public education of Ghana’s children. Such feelings coupled with other experiences and sites in Ghana impressed upon me the limits of outside help.
Over and over again, the most obvious and important difference between a country like the United States and developing countries like Ghana is the giant differences in local and federal government involvement and investment in required infrastructure. I am not discounting the importance of charity or outside investment, as they bring different peoples together and make the world more connected. However, significant change can only come from within a country from a populace that desires it. If Ghana and other countries hope to become more modern and less poor, their governments are going to have to invest millions, if not eventually billions into building up their infrastructure, their departments, and their regulations. It is surprising how much my fellow Americans deride and even hate such government involvement and spending. I would challenge them to visit Ghana and similar countries to experience what life is like without it. Such policies and institutions are what organize a country and give access for economic growth.
The word “infrastructure” has now been used a number of times, and I would like to explain what I mean by it by examples of challenges Ghana faces. The most important physical infrastructures that Ghana needs to invest in are its roads, its utilities such as electricity and water, its public schools, its healthcare facilities, high-speed Internet access, and waste management. Without these necessities in good condition and accessible to the higher population areas, businesses will not invest nor flourish, and people will not have good paying and stable employment. A healthy and educated population go without saying more. Also required, and which I did see some advertising for, are systematic business regulations. If not for such regulations in the U.S., businesses would be able to treat their employees badly without consequences, working conditions would be unsafe, dangerous products would be sold, and taxes would not be reliable. Tourists will also be turned off and rightly irritated by the aggressiveness of markets and lack of upfront pricing. Then there is the issue of the building sector and city planning. In Ghana, I came away with the impression that there are no rules or laws governing construction codes, licensed building trades, or city standards and planning. Many cities we saw were sprawled out, haphazard mazes. Streets were not uniform, lacked safety features such as sidewalks in most places we visited, and were too narrow for easy access for larger vehicles in many locales. After a few days, the constant sight of street vendors was tiring. Soon I found myself thankful for the organizational structures of my own society, and its cities and businesses. At home, I felt safer and less stressed with not having to deal with such chaos.
In short, Ghana is in much need of internal investment and federal government involvement. Its current condition can be likened to where the United States was at the beginning of the 20th century. The U.S. once lacked basics like widespread electricity, good waste management, an interstate highway system, and the very complicated systems of business and economic regulation. I like to hope that Ghana can achieve these things, but I know that doing so will have to come from within Ghana itself, and that financing such investment may be out of reach for its government. What I can for sure place my hope in are the Ghanaians themselves, for they are hard-working and kind people whose welcome for me I will never forget.