Expat Ivory Towers – Neocolonialism in Contemporary Ghana
By Gretel Cuevas Verdin
Latin America Analyst
If one goes to a restaurant or an apartment building in the luxurious area of Cantonments or Airport Residential in Accra, the capital of Ghana, something that surprises is that the majority of people there are foreigners. Although the waiters or the security guards will be Ghanaians, the great majority of the people enjoying a cocktail next to the bar or relaxing in a comfortable living room will be from everywhere but the African continent. After spending two months living in Ghana it became to me more than clear that this is not a coincidence but a sign that colonialism is still alive. Although Ghana gained its independence from British colonial rule in 1957, colonialism and Western hegemony still operate through the economy and institutions shaping severe inequalities in employment, education, and long-term economic development.
Similarly to the rest of Africa, highly qualified professionals from all over the world come to Ghana with attractive contracts to work for NGOs, multinational companies, financial firms, and international organisations. Besides having average salaries of around $20,000 USD, the life of an expat can provide you with benefits that one can only dream of while living in Europe or the United States. Perks such as enjoying housekeeping services and a personal chef six days a week, having free school fees, and rent in some of the most expensive areas of the city are just some of the many benefits that the majority of expats enjoy. According to the Global Development Professional Network Research, expats in Ghana earn up to 900% more than local employees for doing similar jobs, or even working for the same company.
The expat population in the country has grown since the deregulation and liberalisation of the economy that came after the adoption of the structural adjustment program in 1983. Since then, the economy of Ghana has experienced substantial growth, reaching an all-time high economic growth rate of 14.4 percent in 2011 which was one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Economic growth has also been accompanied by political transformation starting with the Fourth Republic in 1993 that ended with military rule and marked the transition to a stable democracy. However, rapid economic growth and socio-political transformation have not been enough to end inequalities, nor to translate a higher quality of life for the majority of Ghanaians.
The inequality that is experienced in Ghana goes in multiple directions and through a diversity of channels. Beyond the evident inequality between expats and Ghanaians, the international inequality also reflects within the Ghanaian society. There are severe contrasts between the capital and the rest of the country, with the majority of the accumulation of capital in the south. According to OXFAM, the wealthiest 10% of Ghanaians now share 32% of Ghana’s total consumption, more than is consumed by the bottom 60% of the population combined. Although attracting global talent and foreign direct investment has many benefits for any economy, such as easy international trade, economic stimulation, and the development of new human resources, the extreme disparities in Ghana’s labor market demonstrate that the challenge that remains is promoting pro-poor growth and social protection that will bridge the gap between expats and Ghanaian, rural and urban, as well as between males and females.
The high levels of inequality are particularly worrying in a country with surprisingly high living costs. In 2020, the inflation rate was as high as 9.89%, a situation which is worsened by the rising unemployment, and high dependence on imports. Therefore it is not surprising to find a kilo of tomatoes for $10 at the supermarket or to pay over $2000 for a 1-bedroom apartment with WiFi and Air Conditioning. While the sky-rocketing prices are not a worry for the majority of expats who enjoy juicy salaries and economic compensations, the majority of professional Ghanaians have to secure two or three jobs to pay the bills. During my time in Ghana, a young engineer didn’t hesitate to admit that he sometimes skipped some of his meals. The situation gets worse and worse for those who didn’t have the privilege of completing their education, or those who live in rural communities where economic opportunities are even more scarce. Unfortunately, the reality is that there are two Ghanas: the Expat Ghana, a paradise on earth, and the real Ghana, a country where its people still pay the consequences of centuries of colonial exploitation.
In the majority of the international narratives, post-colonial countries like Ghana are often referred to as “underdeveloped nations.” While many of these perspectives blame this situation on the weakness of their governments, the corruption of their leaders, and the fragility of their economies, few recognise the past these countries are recovering from decades of exploitation. The global south and the majority of countries in Africa have not only been systematically stripped from most of its economic resources but also from its human resources. Ghana, as a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, lost more than 77 million of its people who were shipped off to the Caribbean and the Americas according to recent estimates. Therefore, the fragility of Africa, is not a coincidence but a direct consequence of two centuries of slavery, followed by colonial abuse and perpetrated through unfair economic exploitation. Although it is assumed that colonialism is something we have left behind, exploitation still operates through subtle channels such as income inequality that in some way have normalised the fact that a foreigner earns up to 900% more than a local for performing a similar job.
Unfortunately, racism and colonialism are still the reality of Ghana and many other post-colonial societies in the Global South that will remain until deliberate actions are taken by the global community to create equitable development in post-colonial nations. Foreign Direct Investment and humanitarian aid is not enough to reverse this reality, it is necessary to create equitable development that can start with reducing the income inequality gap that exists between locals and expats, investing in education programs, and taking the time to recognise that there are still many things that we need to change as a global community to create more just societies and economies. The question that remains in Ghana is not only how to create macroeconomic development but how to promote equitable and responsible development that reflects on the lives of the majority.
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