Ghana's hydro-class struggles
ACCRA -- Notwithstanding the horrific soccer stadium disaster in which at least 165 people were killed in a police-incited stampede on May 9, the past week offered signs of genuine hope in Ghana.
I've been privileged to witness a careful regrouping of the country's former revolutionary student/community movement, which is strengthening its political base by addressing two key areas of economic and social strife: the legacy of structural adjustment and water privatisation.
As was the case recently in Bolivia, Ecuador and South Africa, Ghana's capital city and rural areas could witness rising protest in coming months. The combination of neoliberal economic policies and the commodification of water could well drive ordinary Ghanaians to the streets.
That would be bad news for a vociferous US ideologue of neoliberalism, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who visited Accra in late April and declared that Africans want free markets, penetration by multinational corporations and the Clinton Administration's African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000 (AGOA).
"While the protesters in Quebec were busy denouncing globalization in the name of Africans and the world's poor," wrote Friedman on April 24, "Africans themselves will tell you that their problem with globalization is not that they are getting too much of it, but too little."
Friedman cited just one Ghanaian, George Apenteng of the Institute for Economic Affairs, which is funded by transnational corporations, including Kaiser Aluminum and Unilever.
A far better informant would have been Charles Abugre, director of ISODEC, the Integrated Social Development Centre, whose 68 staff do top-quality radical analysis, publishing, development projects, community organising, Africa-wide and international networking, and unrelenting advocacy.
"AGOA is not having a positive effect in Ghana," says Abugre. "We see it merely as an instrument for opening Ghana's markets in the name of promoting US investments. For Friedman to argue that AGOA will be the means by which we can penetrate the US market is a delusion. The main effect of AGOA is to link aid to economic reform, by which is meant the dismantling of state regulatory environment. There are no benefits, and the costs include clear manifestations of deepening structural adjustment and deregulation."
ISODEC and its allies in the African Trade and Development Network are campaigning to roll back AGOA. Abugre calls for vigilance from US-based Africa solidarity activists. "We are protesting AGOA in civil society groups across Africa and are placing it on the agenda of the Organisation of African Unity and UN Economic Commission for Africa. AGOA is simply another way of undermining Africa's ability to mobilise domestic resources for development, and of enforcing an anti- developmental trade regime."
Two decades ago, Abugre and several of ISODEC's other leaders were amongst those responsible for giving Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings a social power base of enormous importance--to their great regret.
For after taking control of the students' June 4 Movement and gaining state power in a December 1981 coup, Rawlings did a vicious political U-turn within months, forcing the lead activists into exile, jailing thousands, and killing hundreds.
The final straw was the young leftists' defeat after a national debate in late 1982 over whether Ghana should turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a structural adjustment loan programme. Though public opinion was clearly with the student movement, conservative opportunists emerged and helped Rawlings turn right, though he retained his nationalist demagoguery.
(The story of Ghana's revolutionary moment and its squashing is well told by Zaya Yeebo in his book, Ghana: The Struggle for Popular Power, published in 1991 by New Beacon Books of London.)
During the 1980s-90s the IMF and World Bank ran roughshod over Ghana, helping open the country's doors to Western governments whose aid schemes nearly invariably failed. US administrations became friendlier, capped by a visit from Bill Clinton in 1998. Formal democracy was finally restored in 1992 (Rawlings was then elected twice amidst a mediocre field and boycotts by opposition parties due to blatant vote-rigging).
Amidst the chaos and underdevelopment, Ghana was officially considered amongst Africa's star neoliberal pupils, boasting an average of 4.4% economic growth a year from the mid-1980s to 2000.
Yet last December, after two decades in which the average annual income of the country's 18 million people never rose above $400, disgruntled voters replaced the ruling National Democratic Congress with the New Patriotic Party, led by John Kufuor.
A gullible neoliberal in practice, Kufuor at least concedes the obvious when pressed. On May 7, ISODEC hosted a conference on the effects of two decades of World Bank policies. Kufuor sent a message with this frank admission: "After 20 long years of implementing structural adjustment programmes, our economy has remained weak and vulnerable and not sufficiently transformed to sustain accelerated growth and development. Poverty has become rather widespread, unemployment very high, manufacturing and agriculture in decline and our external and domestic debts much too heavy a burden to bear."
The local World Bank resident representative, Peter Harrold, confessed that Kufuor was right. Agreeing that the Bank had ignored Ghanaian social priorities, he pledged more support to loan programmes specifically aimed at uplifting the poor. Water system "restructuring" was one example, given the failure of Ghana's state company to provide affordable clean water to about 60% of urban residents.
But a few days later, on May 17, Harrold was lambasted in front of several hundred more civil society delegates at an ISODEC public forum on water. In his defense, Harrold bragged not only of coordinating a rural water investment scheme to supply communal taps to villages under certain conditions. He also actively promotes the leasing, over 10-25 years, of two large urban water systems to supply several million residents. Five multinational corporations have already bid for the contracts.
Replying to Harrold, development practitioner Danumin Subiniman--who coordinates numerous rural northern Ghanaian water schemes paid for by a 1999 Bank loan--complained that "full cost recovery, the demand driven approach and World Bank conditionality of 5% upfront payment are fully enforced."
Yet "these cost too much," insists Subiniman, and are responsible for numerous rural system failures. A deadly epidemic of Guinea worm, a debilitating waterborn parasite, has broken out.
Nor is water quality testing provided in poor areas, says Subiniman. And because the Bank and state insist on full cost-recovery from poor people, "huge sums of their income are being spent on capital and maintenance."
The forum also unveiled that the Bank and state's full cost-recovery strategy assumes water can be stripped of "public goods" (or what economists term merit goods, or externalities). Reduced to the status of commodity, water should be bought and sold in the marketplace.
Thus, according to the 1999 Bank water loan documentation cosigned by Harrold, "It is assumed that the health benefits known to users are captured in their willingness to pay for good quality water."
Abugre objects that the Bank's "willingness to pay" surveys are ludicrous. Instead, in a context of terribly low levels of "ability to pay," in rural areas that basically survive without cash incomes, the benefits that flow from disease abatement, gender equity and economic spin-offs justify much greater water subsidies.
But moreover, says Abugre, "Water is a human right. Without it, there can be no life. We cannot let it become a mere commodity."
Harrold may have failed the rural poor with his dogmatic refusal to subsidise operating and maintenance expenses. But his contribution to the privatisation debate is more complex.
Last year, Harrold derailed the first attempt to lease Accra's water system because of bribery--allegedly worth $5 million, and implicating Rawlings' wife--by an Enron subsidiary. Other multinational water companies had complained about the bribe and non-competitive bid, and this incident gave Harrold a chance to reverse the Bank's local image for being soft on corruption.
The Bank remains desperate to claim an anglofone West African privatisation success story, and so Harrold is making the urban water leases a precondition for Ghana's access to debt relief via the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.
(Some progressive Washington groups, led by Rob Weissman of Essential Action and Sara Grusky of Globalization Challenge Initiative are trying to make water- privatisation conditionality illegal, following on their success last year in a congressional campaign to stop imposition of user fees via Bank health/education loans.)
At the ISODEC forum, I was joined by three South African comrades who pointed out the many drawbacks to privatising water, and the need for a public-people-partnership alternative. Soweto activist Trevor Ngwane told the story of the community/labour Anti- Privatisation Forum in Johannesburg, while Lance Veotte and Victor Mhlongo of the SA Municipal Workers Union reported on struggles to make South Africa's decrepid, bureaucratic state water apparatus finally accountable to low-income people (see http://www.samwu.org.za/apf.htm).
In fact, remarked a commentator from the floor, the appalling conditions that Accra water consumers face directly reflect class power and segregation. Virtually all upper- income people have no problem accessing clean tap water and water-borne sewerage in Accra's bourgeois neighbourhoods; virtually all low-income people have irregular or nonformal access to water. Ghana's neoliberal state works for the rich, not for the poor.
But now clever Mr Harrold intervenes, with a devious way of capitalising on resentment against the Ghana Water Company, so as to promote privatisation. The Bank has played a triple trick on Ghanaian society since Rawlings came to power:
a) running down the state, so that privatisation appears as the only alternative to public service failure;
b) exacerbating class inequality in society, so it is logical to argue that the existing system is biased toward the rich (and hence claim that privatisation will actually benefit the poor); and
c) compelling the state to raise water tariffs (prices) sharply before privatisation so that the chosen multinational corporation would be spared public anger.
Harrold could therefore claim to the ISODEC forum that only a private supplier can extend the system to the poor and fix the leaks system responsible for half of Accra's water never being charged for.
This triple gambit was first used to promote water privatisation in the Bank's main pilot project, Buenos Aires, as two of my academic colleagues in the Municipal Services Project have just shown in a recent study (http://www.queensu.ca/msp).
Here, then, is where internationalism is evolving from solidarity into concrete alliances with Ghana's poor and working people. There are increasingly similar institutional enemies in the hydro-class struggles: the Bank and multinational water companies (best critiques at http://www.psiru.org).
In Accra, Harrold immediately ran into difficulty when a secret document revealed that "cherry-picking"--i.e., avoiding poor areas--will be built into the leases that will govern the city's water.
The Bank and Ghanaian government's "Information Memorandum"--tellingly labeled on page i, "strictly confidential"-- was prepared by Stone and Webster Consultants of Washington, DC. "Rather than expansion" of the water supply to low- income urban communities, the privatisers are instructed by the document not to "displace" the existing super-exploitative private-sector watertankers who have monopolised supply to low-income communities.
Faced with this evidence, the community groups at the forum constituted a "Ghana National Coalition Against the Privatization of Water" to "ensure that the ownership, control and management of water services remain in public hands."
"This deepening of the movement is what we failed to do twenty years ago," acknowledged veteran activist Rudolf Amenga-Etego of ISODEC. "Our naivety and overconfidence as young student activists led us to believe that if we could catalyse a left-wing coup, we could march into power and reconstruct society from above. But as you see from the state of our country, it ended in disaster."
He smiled. "Now we know that building this movement against structural adjustment and water commodification from the bottom up is the only way to succeed. It may take a few more years but we won't be deterred from this path."
(Patrick Bond, based at Wits University and the Alternative Information and Development Centre in Johannesburg, is at email@example.com)