In This Review

Democracy in Ghana: Everyday Politics in Urban Africa
Democracy in Ghana: Everyday Politics in Urban Africa
By Jeffrey W. Paller
Cambridge University Press, 2019, 328 pp
Economies After Colonialism: Ghana and the Struggle for Power
Economies After Colonialism: Ghana and the Struggle for Power
By Lindsay Whitfield
, 2018, 378 pp

Two complementary books astutely assess Ghana’s uneven political and economic record. They share the view that a focus on formal institutions alone will not account for either political or economic outcomes. Studying the slums of Accra with the keen eye of an ethnographer, Paller argues that understanding local identity politics helps explain why Ghana’s political system remains largely undemocratic, despite the façade of democratic institutions. Clientelistic relationships that follow complicated ethnic logics dominate everyday life and discourage the development of a broader civic culture. Paller supports his thesis with fascinating analyses of several communities within urban Accra and their ability to provide public goods to their members. He shows that the patterns of ethnic settlement in the city have led to different “politics of belonging.” Communities made up mostly of newcomers are better able to generate local political systems that are more responsive to citizens and deliver higher-quality social services. Paller finds that these communities may not benefit from as large budgetary allocations as the more established indigenous-dominated neighborhoods, but they manage their budgets better, with the garbage picked up more regularly and public toilets better maintained. As for the mixed communities, which include both indigenous people and immigrants, the local politics there tends to be harder-edged, and residents in such places receive fewer public goods. 

Whitfield’s study is perhaps the most comprehensive review of recent Ghanaian industrial policy and deserves to be read for its description of a succession of government initiatives since independence. Whitfield is a passionate advocate for a state-led economic growth strategy that would rely primarily on industrialization. Despite the healthy economic growth that Ghana has enjoyed since the mid-1990s, she criticizes the country for not moving sufficiently away from the commodities-based economy left by British colonialism and argues that its recent growth is not sustainable. The fault, the book argues, lies in Ghana’s fractious elite politics and its pervasive “competitive clientelism.” Ethnic divisions and diffuse power centers encourage redistribution instead of investment. Politicians need to placate their own bases to win and hold on to power, and so they think in short-term horizons that discourage the government from nurturing the kinds of firms that could transform the economy. If Paller views Ghana’s democratization since the early 1990s as largely irrelevant to the day-to-day lives of Ghanaians, Whitfield appears to view it as an outright detriment to economic growth.