International Development in Ghana or: Using History as a Yardstick for the Future

By: Jacob Taylor
on for GS316

Development in Ghana has been rocky, progressing in fits and starts, with regressions here and there. More recently, it's doing alright, but that hasn't always been the case. Within countries in Africa, one large debate taking place right now is the role that the history of a nation has in determining its future. Academics are trying to tackle the question, most broadly, "Did colonization have a positive effect on X country?". There are lots of qualifications in the question that I've omitted, and will undoubtedly be many qualifiers in the answers as well. Economics (historical and otherwise) are trying to answer this question, and there is a clear divide in the literature between those who see evidence of robust growth during and after colonial rule (inversely proportional to how wealthy the poor were during colonial rule) and those who see colonial rule as having destroyed a nation and hobbled its infrastructure (and stolen its wealth). This paper will cover the points of the debate, and situate Ghana's development within the broader context of colonialism.

The biggest omitted set of qualifiers in this debate is who, where, and how. Balancing regions of nations in Africa (because of the amazing level of diversity), and ranking based on how urban (or rural) they are, or what the primary economic activity of the people there was, is tough, especially with spotty or non-existent data. Alexander Moradi in Confronting Colonial Legacies – Lessons From Human Development in Ghana and Kenya, 1880-2000 creates a proxy metric attempting to at least partially fill this dearth of data by looking at historical measurements of `body stature` (height) and how they changed over time. Moradi uses this as a proxy for `nutritional status` of people at the time, and because the data is bucketed by region it's possible, along with historical information on each region, to construct an image of (human) development over time (by region) (Moradi, p. 1108). Moradi argues strongly against what he sees as a failure of colonial literature analysis wherein academics ascribe present (or recent history) outcomes to historical roots (for example, the trend of a region in the late 19th century having direct influence on the late 20th century trend for the same region) while ignoring the time between, which he sees as particularly important (especially if it, in his eyes, somehow contradicts trends in recent and far past history). He claims that this assumes a linear continuity of history (an untenable assumption in Africa), and is thus very weak or useless without further historical analysis. Moradi also objects to using income aggregates as a proxy for development, wealth, or colonial experience, because it masks extremely different experiences even within colonialism based on income level, region, and and other factors that would create vastly different historical experiences. He says "This is especially true with respect to the African continent; where country aggregates least represent uniform 'bundles of historical experience', prerequisites, or development processes" (Moradi, p. 1108).

Moradi concludes that the proxy metric for nutrition and health he constructed does not reflect the current trend in historical development analysis that colonizers were only exploitative, never built anything other than exploitative institutions which survive to this day, and had only negative effects on the population. His constructed dataset leads to the conclusion that Ghana (and Kenya, which he also analyzed) made significant progress during the 20th century, excepting a stumble during the inter-war period between World War 1 and 2 (Moradi, p. 1117). Up until the 1970s, he sees significant progress being made, but not after. Historically, this coincides with the end of influence by Kwame Nkrumah, their first president, cultural icon, and leader of their independence from Britain. He died in 1972.

From a purely economic perspective (even aside from the inherent weakness of his dataset), Moradi may be correct that (economically) colonization isn't always bad. This characterization, however, does not account for the everyday lived experiences of a colonized people. This perspective, of those colonized, is part and parcel to the current view that colonization is always bad. There are indeed some potential benefits to it, but overall and due to the exploitative nature of colonizers (which Moradi denies on the basis of not-every-experience-was-bad), colonization is seen as a net-negative process.

In Measuring and Explaining Poverty in six African Countries: A Long-Period Approach Bowden et all argue (against, though not directly) the conclusion reached by Moradi is incorrect due to what ends up being a confounding variable that economics alone cannot address. They find a correlation between colonies in sub-Saharan Africa who did not allow European settlers on agricultural land, and greater success post-independence (a group of which Ghana is a member). They look at six countries, split evenly between those who did and did not allow European settlers on agricultural land, and find that the countries who allowed settlers on agricultural land saw locals squeezed out of jobs during the colonial period, reducing the economic base of the nation when they gained independence. This left wages "static at subsistence levels until late in the century", a huge wealth disparity, and because of the lack of wealth of the locals they had less of an economic base to tax when the countries inevitably undertook market-oriented liberalizations in the 1980s+ (Bowden, p. 1049). On the contrary, those nations who did not allow settlers to take over agricultural land ended the century with greater wealth, and thus an expanded tax base from which to draw during market liberalizations and infrastructure building. They argue that this increased base led to a floor being created in the market under which wages would not fall, and which was above subsistence level, resulting in better outcomes in both the nearer and farther future terms. Additionally, and in contravention to Moradi, they argue that the historical roots both before and during colonization matter for current outcomes due to how ingrained the structural biases against the nation are, both in the nation itself and in the international system in which they are now expected to participate (Bowden, p. 1050). It is argued that part of the recent alleviation of poverty on the African continent is due to "an escape from the historical roots of poverty, which are determined by the national and global forces governing access to resources by Africans and the citizens of other developing countries over a much longer period" (Bowden, p. 1050). In short, they have thrown off the chains of their historical subjugation as nations, as well as having made good decisions around development in the past 20 years.

Bowden et all, like Moradi, develop a new dataset from proxy metrics (metrics plural, not singular as in the case of Moradi) and find great correlation between mortality rates and poverty, their chief concern (and the alleviation thereof). As they do not rely on only a singular metric, and they use more countries as test cases (six, not two), their results are more accurate (to reality) over the 100 years they analyze (a similar time period to Moradi's 120 years analyzed). This leads to a more complex conclusion that Moradi, that mortality rates are correlated with poverty (reductions in poverty accompany reductions in mortality rates), and that the leading way in these countries to reduce poverty by raising wages was for there to exist opportunities for Africans to make money other than subsistence living, and that these alternatives were hampered or eliminated when settlers were allowed to push Africans out of these alternative economies via physical displacement (from granting the land to the settlers instead of the Africans, forcing relocation) (Bowden, 1063-1066). One way to boost wages was to increase agricultural production capacity, and this was done much more effectively in the nations without settlers – more of the money extracted for the colonizer could be re-invested in the communities by the chiefs who managed the regions because of greater local autonomy (Bowden, p. 1067).

Finally, the one enabling feature of all the economies who flourished (without settler competition) was the infrastructure to get the products the poor made, to market. In Ghana, that was a system of rails built between World War 1 and 2, which went from the smallholder cocoa farms (their primary export) to the coast (Bowden, p. 1068). They conclude that this institutional shadow over the country (in addition, education played a role, but infrastructure lasts longer) acts as a magnifier on the existing productive, less-impoverished, economic base of nations who did not allow settlers. Taken together, this dataset (though based only in proxy metrics and not historical poverty reduction policy documentation) brings a somewhat clearer view of the guidance history can give us as to whether or not nations are chained to their historic roots. However clear the cases Moradi and Bowden et all make, and whatever weaknesses they may have, they are based in a historical analysis of some sort. That is inevitably going to result in better predictions than one might get from (economic, political, cultural) theory alone.

In Will it all end in Tears? Infrastructure Spending and African Development in Historical Perspective, Mold focuses on infrastructure investment in African nations and the lessons that can be learned from sub-Saharan African nations' post-independence infrastructure spending sprees that led many economies to contract sharply because of the debt that investment bore (Mold, p. 237-38), to which the international communities' response was Structural Adjustment Policies instituted at the hands of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Many of the infrastructure investments in the 60s and 70s (broadly, post-independence) were complete failures. Four lane highways to nowhere, dams that silted up, and steel works that never functioned (Mold, p. 238). This was a complete failure to match the needed infrastructure with the reality of what was actually needed in the countries, such that bringing in foreign expertise resulted in many of the most-spectacularly failed projects. So, Mold asks, what is comparable between then and now, and what can African nations do to avoid repeating many of the same mistakes? Mold focuses on the historical context of these failures in Ghana (and two other nations), such as the export price of cocoa dropping precipitously during the first round of infrastructure building Nkrumah went on, just in time to evaporate the export tax base fueling the infrastructure boom for the second five-year-plan (of infra. investments) (Mold, p. 241). The core takeaway here is that these infrastructure investments were not necessarily the best-targeted, but primarily they didn't take into account changing conditions external to the country. On a higher level, they failed to take into account other facets of development, like the development of `human capital` through education and social services. Airlines and 4 lane highways aren't the only thing a country needs, after all (Mold, p. 246).

So, what's comparable between then and now? One of the pitfalls nations face now is the exact same over-exuberance for infrastructure – fueled by renewed academic theory suggesting a correlation between existent infrastructure and increased private capital utilization, as well as China's post-2000 "resources for infrastructure" deals (Mold, p. 247). However, this time around the nations involved are better at managing money and prioritizing projects (Mold, p. 249). There's also competition for who provides the infrastructure (western donors competing with Chinese state investments), better governance and governance models, and better coordination between nations around critical potentially shared infrastructure (Mold, p. 250-1). There are a few things to be wary of, of course – many sub-Saharan nations cannot do this construction and build-out without outside contractors, and that's problematic just as it was the first time around (needing external niche knowledge to run your own country is a bad position to be in). It's challenging to compare between such different time periods (though relatively recent, indeed), but overall Mold argues that there will be better outcomes this time around. This kind of rigorous evaluation of historical comparability is important in identifying whether or not we can be guided by lessons from the past – in this case we can, but it isn't always the case.

In The 'Reversal of Fortune' Thesis and the Compression of History: Perspectives from African and Comparative Economic History by Austin, the author rejects a recent contribution to the field of economic history, wherein Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson ("AJR") (2001) argued that colonization led to a "reversal of fortune" for those colonized. The author focuses on problems inherent one of the main interpretations put forth surrounding the history of the African continent in the context of post-colonial states, and how their fortunes before and during colonialism lead to a "reversal of fortune" – that colonies with strongly enforced private property rights or those that heavily "extracted rents" had a reversal of fortune and ended up being some of the most power-house economies of the modern day. What Austin objects to, and argues against from a historiographic perspective, is the compression of history that was necessary to fit the narrative created (AJR's use of econometric analysis), that some of the countries who were most downtrodden during colonial times are – because of that treatment – the powerhouse economies they are today. Austin says that "By compressing different historical periods and paths, the 'reversal' thesis over-simplifies the causation" (Austin, p. 996).

The specific problem at the heart of this is what the compression of history removes from that history. Indeed, from an economic analysis perspective the compression probably makes comparisons between different time periods (the intent being long-term analysis, of course) much much easier, but it also removes most, if not all, of the nuance of that history – and most importantly to Austin, it removes information from the narrative that would allow those analyzing to sufficiently differentiate the subtleties of different scenarios. Just as sampling data or human experiences removes much outside of the "average" (which is not representative), compressing history does nothing to encompass the variety of historic experiences and the narratives that accompany them. Austin points out that even the definitions of things like "colonial rule" and "property rights" varied so much over the time period analyzed (the comparison for the Reversal Thesis was done between 64 nations in 1500 and 1995) as to make the comparison worthless. This was even touched upon in Bowden et all, where Bowden (I summarize) points out that income aggregates for an entire country, even in a time series, is completely insufficient even to give us an idea of the robustness of the economy over the period. Aggregates like that compress the experiences of an entire country to one metric, which cannot possibly be representative.

Austin argues that

this compression of history occurs horizontally as well as vertically, conflating different 'paths' of economic history as well as different periods, as a result of the other binary comparison made in the research design: the division of European colonies across five continents into just two groups, 'settler' and 'non-settler' colonies, with the African countries being seen as part of the latter (p. 998)

This is intensely problematic – setting up a binary comparison between two time periods that are eminently incomparable (without extremely qualified statements, and even then it's still very problematic), while compressing history (the mental backflip required to make that comparison with a straight face) on at least two axes, leads to a nice narrative for the theory, and a nice history to analyze, but not a history that happened for anybody in the countries under analysis. Complexity here is not bad, and less so if accompanied with well-qualified analyses. Complexity, not complicatedness, of analysis is one of the ways the rest of us can gain insight into historic events with myriad complex causes and effects. Both Bowden and Austin argue for this. Simplicity, here, is compression. It's easy, but it's not useful.

So, back to the question that we started with: Did colonization have a positive effect in Ghana, and what role has history played in trying to answer that question? Two articles here reject (partially) the role history plays, two fully support it. I fall on the side of those who support it, not just because I think that history is generally important, but because it has a critical role to play within the field of development. Only with historical analysis can we have qualified, culture-specific analyses of historic outcomes of development projects. That is the only way. If we do not have these analyses done, it will be the 70's, 80's, and 90's all over again, continuing to look for the secret sauce of development. First it was missing technology, then the "governance" wasn't good enough, and more recently participation is the missing ingredient. Just like the economic analyses here that missed the complexity of development by misleadingly compressing history, these simplistic characterizations of a nations history do nothing to assist those interested in giving real help.

What this attention to history does, more broadly, is reveals to those who listen the cases in which pure numerical analysis (a la the economic analyses shown here) is useful, and in which cases it isn't. It seems somewhat backwards to attempt to characterize an entire nation's history (or even a small portion of it) by some single metric, but we've been doing that in development for many decades now. What it allows, and this was smartly pointed out by Austin, is a broadening of the field to include many different metrics, many types and facets of understanding, and thus a broader and more accurate understanding of both the context in which you're developing and the previous work done there (so you don't make the same mistakes twice).

So finally, no, colonization was not good for Ghana. Answered broadly, at least. For extremely narrow situations, one can find success stories, but on the whole and like every other colony it was destructive of the people and their resources.

Works Cited

Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson. "The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation." American Economic Review 91.5 (2001): 1369-401. Web.

Austin, Gareth. "The 'reversal of Fortune' Thesis and the Compression of History: Perspectives from African and Comparative Economic History." Journal of International Development 20.8 (2008): 996-1027. Web.

Bowden, Sue, Blessing Chiripanhura, and Paul Mosley. "Measuring and Explaining Poverty in Six African Countries: A Long-period Approach." Journal of International Development 20.8 (2008): 1049-079. Web.

Mold, Andrew. "Will It All End In Tears? Infrastructure Spending And African Development In Historical Perspective." Journal of International Development 24.2 (2012): 237-54. Web.

Moradi, Alexander. "Confronting Colonial Legacies-lessons from Human Development in Ghana and Kenya, 1880-2000." Journal of International Development 20.8 (2008): 1107-121. Web.