Opinion: The Economics of Confusion in Ghana

Budget review. Two words that strike multiple feelings in the heart of a Ghanaian citizen. Interest, confusion, boredom. I am not suggesting our budget review is boring. Nor am I maligning the Minister of Finance’s character, performance or delivery. I am saying that irrespective of party, we do a poor job at communicating the economy to the citizenry.

A nation’s economy matters. It is the engine of a flourishing nation. Citizens need to fully engage with and understand how our economy functions.

So, post this budget review, what did we learn about how we are doing economically as a nation? One political party tells us the Economy is bouncing back; another says the Economy is on life support. Are we rising or are we flat-lining? Confused? Me too.

The politicians don’t really help with clarity when it comes to the Economy. From one party’s Asempa (good news) budget to another’s Asemboni (bad news) review – what impression should we have? Politicizing the economy may be a party political weapon, but citizens need a shield – one that engages the politician, but protects the public and delivers insightful analysis with the citizen’s needs at heart.

I am not an economist. I am a citizen. I claim some intelligence. I am consistently confused by the way in which we do economics in Ghana. When I hear that GDP for the first quarter has grown to 6.6% from 4.4% at the same time from the previous year – that sounds good.  I wonder what that means in practice.  We think economics is a matter of numbers. It is not. It is what the numbers mean and how they manifest in the lives of the people.

I wonder if some politicians prefer an ignorant populace. Ignorance protects a politician’s power. In that context there is profit to be gained from withholding education about economics. What incentive is there to go from red to black when it comes to demystifying this economics of confusion? An enlightened citizen is not a spectator. He or she will ask questions, challenge, follow up, and expect answers.

I watched. I listened. I read. In fact, I read the entire presentation. All 60 pages. I felt as if I had entered an Olympic sport for which I had been given utterly inadequate training.

Here is one example requiring some clarification from the budget. The government is eliminating the 15% VAT on some imported medication. I thought the government wanted to build the home-grown pharmaceutical sector – if they eliminate that tax won’t it make it easier to import medicine and therefore make selling home grown pharmaceuticals harder?

A piece of good news that particularly struck me was one approach to Galamsey. The budget review revealed that  those at the small scale end of illegal mining would put through some kind of education programme. They would be taught the right way to mine, their actions would be monitored so that they do not lose work, but are instead re-oriented with a fresh profession that doesn’t decimate the environment.  I really like this approach which strikes me as smart economics.

Those two parts spoke particularly to me. Not much else did. I am unconvinced that is because there is little else in the budget.  It speaks to my lack of understanding regarding how our economy is communicated.

Economics requires translators, interpreters, picture painters, data analysts – it is a particular specialism. To speak about a nation’s economy to a populace – the majority of whom are not economists – requires a skillset. Given that, we would all be better served by fresh approaches.

We have a deficit of strong economics journalism. I look to my own profession, the media. I invite our media owners to better engage this issue.

Journalism’s economy is effective communication. To do that, it has two currencies: content and content creators. Both require investment, management, development, engagement, challenge in order to become desirable currency that keeps an industry in the black. Are we in the black as an industry when it comes to our dual currencies?

The Media Foundation for West Africa in partnership with Reporters without Borders produced the insightful ‘Media Ownership Monitor’ report. It revealed details about who owns Ghana’s media.  Ownership matters, how are those owners treating our currency?

Our numbers have grown. There are nearly 400 radio stations in Ghana. The report focused on a handful of high performing, big audience share media entities. We learned they are owned by a few wealthy people and their families.

For media owners – particularly radio stations –  journalism’s hidden currency is power and influence. The mic is a powerful tool when it comes to campaigning time. For that power to serve those seeking to make their way and their mark in this profession doing quality journalism, a big investment is required in training, training and more training.  And there is too little investment in that training.

I invite my profession to create a citizen-centered economics journalism. I celebrate radio stations – like Citi FM – who dedicate time, effort, energy to breaking this budget review down and engaging in necessary data analysis. We need much more than one station.

When it comes to budgets – and most definitely this budget review – what we need is clarity.  We need a breakdown, a willingness to invest time and energy in communicating information in more easily comprehensible ways.

Simple questions: How are you doing? How much money will you have in your pocket? How much more likely are you to be able to afford that house or mortgage? How much are your savings worth? When you go shopping will your weekly bill increase or decrease? Which produce is cheaper as a result of your policies? Which is more expensive?  In Ghana, when it comes to language and intelligence, we conflate being confused with being impressed. We think simplicity is stupidity and incomprehensibility is intelligence.

We applaud policy initiatives aimed at kick-starting the economy and increasing jobs, we hear politicians’ reassurance – journalism requires more than being soothed by politician’s words.

I would like to come away from a budget review with some real understanding as opposed to unanswered questions and a head full of incomprehensible numbers. Post budget-review analysis featuring politicians may add entertainment, it almost always adds politics – but we rarely get clarity.

Of course, economies have currencies. One of those currencies is communication. Effective language is a crucial necessary tool. I routinely listened – in vain – to the previous Minister of Finance and never – sadly – left my lane of confusion to enter one of clarity. And I tried. I tried many times.

Asempa vs. Asemboni. That might make for good politics, it doesn’t help the citizenry.

I am a citizen.I am not an economist. I want to better understand a budget-review and its implications in our lives.

I reject these economics of confusion, I seek clarity.

Who’s with me?

 

 

Esther A. ARMAH / Africafeeds.com

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