Feminist economics posts

The secret behind Ghana’s economic growth

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Ghanian women, June 2014. Photographer: Eric Brinkhorst (all photos)

I traveled 3000 kilometers through Ghana after the annual IAFFE conference. This resulted in several aha-erlebnissen, as is so neatly expressed by the inhabitants of the winning country of the World Championship football. In my journey, I strikingly recognized what I teach and write. Women carrying heavy head loads, pumping drinking water, selling products on the roadside, and urinating “free range” as one woman who owned a small eating place without a toilet joked to us. Moreover, I saw many young men hanging around, sometimes begging or washing our car without asking first, creating an uncomfortable situation around payment for unwanted services provided. But I also saw quite equal gender attitudes: women entrepreneurs proudly riding motorbikes, irrespective whether they were Christians or Muslims; a few women guides in tourist places; women using machetes just like men; and a beach resort effectively run by a Ghanaian owner with Ghanaian women in positions in all ranks. Women everywhere knowledgeable of the world’s major football players – not to show off to us, but talking among each other about Lionel Messi and Arjan Robben. The IAFFE conference, which brought me to Ghana, included a paper on career women in Ghana: not only on their own successes, but also on how they help bright young women they happen to meet get higher education and access to relevant networks to start a career.

What my two-week long Tour de Ghana has taught me most about gender and economics in Ghana is the self-esteem and confidence of Ghanaian women and the acceptance of this by men. I think that this is the little secret behind the steady and good economic growth of Ghana, more than the discovery of oil in 2007 and its dubious promises of many new but idle fuel stations along the roads.

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2 comments
  1. Lynda Pickbourn says: July 27, 20149:19 pm

    First, congratulations on taking the time to travel through Ghana – it sounds like it was quite an eye-opening trip for you!
    But I have found myself mulling over your post since I first saw it, and feel compelled to write this response. What your post reveals more than anything else is just how complicated the question of gender equality is.
    Most Ghanaian women reading this, myself included, might smile at the description of us as having ‘self-esteem and confidence’. I am tempted to ask, somewhat tongue-in-cheek – was there ever any question about this? Of course, one would find this surprising only if one is expecting otherwise.
    But Ghanaian women’s confidence, and the acceptance of this by men is really not the issue. Nor is the fact that women ride motorbikes, or use machetes, or know quite a lot about soccer. What matters for real gender equality is whether or not there are structural impediments that prevent Ghanaian women from accessing the resources they need on the same terms as men.
    A quick look at the data reveals significant disparities in the usual indicators – access to education, employment and earnings. Reliable data on gender-based violence may be hard to come by, but a glance at any one of the many newspapers that one finds at a newsstand might lead one to ask just how widespread are these ‘equal gender attitudes’ of which you write. Despite some reforms in the 1980s, customary and common law leave divorced women with few protections from the courts when fathers refuse to look after children.
    The fact that you saw women on motorbikes tells me you must have made it to Tamale, a city in the country’s Northern Region. Small-holder agriculture is the primary livelihood activity in the region, as it is in many other parts of the country. But here, women do not have the right to inherit, own, buy or sell land. Yes, they can ride motorbikes, but they cannot own land – not to farm on, not to build on, not to sell. There is an excellent article by Tsikata and Yaro in Feminist Economics, Vol. 20, No. 1 that touches on some of these issues. Women across Ghana are entrepreneurial because they have to be: cultural norms require women (and men) to make significant contributions to household provisioning, but unlike men, they have limited access to the resources they need to meet these obligations.
    Sure, there might be scattered examples of bourgeois feminist acts of sisterhood, as in the example of career women “helping bright young women to get higher education and access to relevant networks to start a career’. But what does that mean for gender equality, really? What about the many ‘bright young women’ who do not have access to basic education because there is no school in the village in which they live, or because their families would rather educate their brothers, and whose only contact with career women occurs when they go to work in the city as domestic help for these women? This is not to suggest that any of these women should be seen as victims, or that they lack ‘confidence and self-esteem’. But it does complicate matters considerably, don’t you think?
    Implicit in the title of the post, and in the conclusion, is the idea that Ghana’s ‘steady and good economic growth’ is an unquestionably desirable achievement, regardless of how it was attained. Even if we choose to ignore the vast literature that is critical of growth as an indicator of human development, those who are familiar with the human costs of the policy choices of the past twenty/thirty years that have resulted in Ghana’s economic growth may have some questions about this. The post does mention ‘idle fuel stations’ – despite being the much-lauded darling of the IMF and the World Bank, Ghana’s economy has been hit by a rapidly depreciating currency, fuel shortages and rising utility prices. This report from the BBC pretty much sums up how Ghanaians feel about it all:
    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-28473594

  2. Gunseli Berik says: July 31, 201411:20 am
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