Two Accras?: Income Inequality and the Meaning of Development

I am currently back in Accra.  The last time I was here was 2013, but that trip was so short that I did not get a full sense of the changes in the city.  The last time I was really here was 2012.  Three years seems like no time at all and an eternity simultaneously.  As I stepped off the plane, I couldn’t help but observe that the image of the city that one gets upon approach from the air looks not altogether different than when I first arrived more than 10 years ago.  As I walked down the stairs and onto the tarmack, I smelled the same mixture of mosquito coils, coal fires, palm oil, car exhaust, open sewers, and the fresh foliage of the rainy season.  Immigration, Customs, and the Arrivals Hall are being renovated and there is now refreshing air conditioned while waiting to get through the Immigration line, but it all seemed very much the same.  I exited into the giant mass of people waiting for their family members and friends and taxi drivers looking for fares.  I found my ride and we made our way into Accra.  The place I am staying is nicer than where I often stay, in part because I am here for such a short time and partially also to protect the technology I had to bring from the effects of hot weather and dumsor (light off) that has been plaguing the country over the last year (and really for at least the last decade).  But it all still felt very familiar.

I was back in Osu–off of the hectic Oxford Street, though not quite as far as I used to be–surrounded by people who live and work in Osu, not just those who go there to eat at the restaurants.  People often associate Osu with the expatriate restaurants, entertainment, and shopping that are concentrated along its main drag, Oxford Street.  But, as Ato Quayson has argued recently in his book, Oxford Street, Accra, the street and the community that exists behind the commercial facade have a much longer history, dating back to the earliest settlements of Ga people in the area now known as Accra.  In Making the Town:  Ga State and Society in Early Colonial Accra, historian John Parker highlights the early history of Osu as a Ga town, connected to the Danish fort of Christiansborg and later integrated as one of the three major districts of Accra (along with Jamestown and Usshertown) during the British colonial period.  To this day, family names among Osu residents reflect this history of connection with early Danish explorers and traders.  Not all of Osu’s residents cater to the concentrated financial capital and tourism that gathers along Oxford Street.  Many people’s lives are only tangentially connected to the rigor of Oxford Street or the upscale hotels and restaurants that increasingly dot the neighborhoods on either side of the street.  In other words, Oxford Street has long been a study of contrasts.  The scale of that contrast has certainly increased over the last ten years, but even as early as the 1980s, Osu and Oxford Street were the place to be for expatriates and elite/middle-class Ghanaians alike.  So, in living in Osu, one expects to witness inequality.  Disconcerting, certainly.  But true.

What has become clear over the last decade is that the inequality of Oxford Street has been spilling out into other parts of Accra.  During a year of dissertation research in 2009, I noted that many parts of the city appeared fundamentally changed as new construction and infrastructural development altered the streetscape.  Tetteh Quarshie Circle, once the largest traffic circle in West Africa, was redeveloped into a complex interchange.  At one corner of that interchange, retired banker Joseph Owusu-Akyaw built Accra Mall in 2008.  Accra Mall brought Hollywood movies in a state-of-the-art cinema, local luxuries, international brands, and the retail branches of South African capital, which had been expanding across the continent.  Ghanaians and expats alike flocked to the new mall, consuming the cosmopolitan offerings of the shopping center, from prepared foods to groceries to imported commodities to locally produced cloth, in air conditioned luxury.  It was a vision of middle-class prosperity, with coffee shops and kids’ playgrounds, where people strolled on Sunday afternoons and visited on holidays.  Accra Mall was not alone.  Older expat restaurants found increasing competition from a new batch of cafes and restaurants that catered to an African middle class and elite.  Cheesecakes, cupcakes, sandwiches, salads, iced tea, and cappuccinos were consumed, and the new establishments often seemed full.  Patrons read Hello! and OK and O! while they waited for their food.  On the roads, you saw increasing numbers of luxury vehicles and private cars.  Luxury housing developments were constructed in neighborhoods like East Legon, Airport Residential, Cantonments, Labone, and Osu, with prices that often started at 250,000 euros.

In 2015, these processes only seem to have further accelerated.  There are at least 6 malls in the capital now, with at least four only several miles from each other.  And they are full.  There are gourmet burger restaurants, cocktail bars, soul food fusion restaurants, gelateria, sushi restaurants, Argentinean steakhouses, French bistros with menus designed by the chef at Nobu.  Today I visited the newest shrine to commercial prosperity and cosmopolitanism:  The West Hills Mall in New Weija.  I have to say, I was dazzled.  There was a comfort in walking past the stores of the sparkling new mall.  Adidas, Samsonite, Case Logic, Mango, Bata, MAC cosmetics, and Payless have stores in the mall.  There is a home goods store with home decor strikingly similar to that privileged on popular websites like Apartment Therapy.  You can buy a KitchenAid mixer with ice cream maker attachment, an espresso maker, and a slow cooker.  Your kids can get their own miniature Mercedes SUV.  You can visit the same shops found on London High Streets.  As we drove away, I observed that it was increasingly possible to live in Accra, but not actually feel like you were in Ghana.  At least if you had enough money.

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Much has been made of Accra’s dramatic development.  Part of the “Africa Rising” narrative, these symbols of luxury have been touted as signs of widespread economic development.  Shows like An African City have been praised for their ability to capture the new reality of an African middle class that is growing in cities like Accra.  Tourist guidebooks direct visitors to the new symbols of prosperity.  It is indeed interesting.  And, for those of us who live with these creature comforts in our daily lives, it might even be appealing or exciting.  And yet, if one looks past the facade and into the spaces in between these islands of prosperity, one sees that these developments represent the growing wealth of some Ghanaians, but certainly not all.  Or even most.  Between Osu and Weija, one passes forms of commercialism that have much longer histories in the city and which continue to cater to the needs of the majority of the city’s residents.  Markets and shops line the busy street, trotros and taxis crowd the road alongside the private cars, young men and boys push carts of goods around sections of the city famous for used car parts or other goods.

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Increasingly, it appears, these experiences have come to represent two worlds–two Accras.  In journalism, the “Africa Rising” narrative provided a correction to the widespread negative coverage of the continent, but it did not eliminate those stories.  As the Twitter campaign #theafricathemedianevershowsyou suggests, the negative coverage continues, guided largely by stereotypes.  To some degree, this reveals the widespread ignorance about the continent among many journalists (for excellent exceptions, see the work of my friends Drew Hinshaw of the Wall Street Journal and Karen Attiah of the Washington Post).  It probably also reflects the attitudes of many within the elite and middle-class populations of Accra.  Certainly among American expats, there is often a fear of going to such commonplace locations as a market–a fear exacerbated by overblown warnings from the American embassy.  When you travel between your air conditioned house and air conditioned restaurants and shops in your air conditioned car, it might be difficult to understand the way in which those people who live along the roadside in between or the trotro passengers who sit beside you in traffic are connected to your life.  This is a type of inequality that is characteristic not just of Accra, Ghana, or Africa…it is an inequality that is pervading global conversations about neoliberal global capital, where the 1% owns more of the world’s wealth than the bottom 99% combined.

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But if we persist in only seeing this issue of inequality through the “two worlds” framework, we continue to reproduce the problem.  We fail to think in innovative ways about how to bridge the gap.  We lack the ability to identify problems with development policy.  In Accra, development policies have long been showing symptoms.  Transport is a prime example.  The Ghanaian government and the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) have funded the development of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in order to address the problem of traffic congestion.  However, in doing so, they target trotros (informal buses) as the cause of the city’s traffic woes.  In reality, trotros transport 85% of the city’s residents but constitute only 15% of the vehicles on the road.  They are, in other words, far more efficient than the other 85% of vehicles–taxis certainly, but also the increasing numbers of private cars which exceed the capacity of existing roads.  In order to protect the interests of private vehicle owners, who wish to travel unimpeded by traffic, the new BRT system limits the opportunities for trotro drivers.  As urban planning students in Detroit have often observed, it seems like they would do better to encourage more trotros, not less and move those private cars off the road.

What also seems increasingly clear in Accra, though, is that there are a number of very interesting organizations that are dedicated to thinking through these projects, both in partnership with international organizations and through grassroots efforts.  HubAccra, iSpace Ghana, Ghana Google Technology User Group, Mobile Web Ghana, Ghana Think, BarCamp Ghana, Blogging Ghana, African Urbanism, Informal City Accra, Accra Soup, Ghana Think Tank, and many others are doing important work in creating conversations and opportunities for a wide swath of city residents, thinking carefully and creatively about the implications of development, and pursuing innovative new strategies for addressing the country’s problems, often using new and widely accessible technologies.  My project, Accra Mobile, is also a small attempt to think through these issues.  Ashesie University encourages this kind of innovative work in a more institutionalized framework.  The connections between some of these organizations in Accra and elsewhere highlights the need to think more carefully and in new ways about development both within and outside of Africa.  In particular, I was excited to hear about the new Accra Soup project that is inspired by the great organization Detroit Soup, which has provided seed money for entrepreneurial ventures in my own adopted city of Detroit.  I look forward to hearing more about that project!  But digital technologies also provide lots of interesting new connections and possibilities to work across the distance of space and time in collaborative projects.  This kind of creative, technological, and entrepreneurial work does exactly what any good academic analysis should do.  It uses careful studies of local conditions and context in order to raise questions about abstract questions.  In the process, it reframes those questions.  It’s a constant conversation, of course.  Assuming that this conversation somehow ends with a decisive answer (whether that answer be rooted in boosterism or pessimism) should raise some red flags.  Development is never decontextualized.  It cannot exist outside of culture and society.  And as culture and society changes (or as it differs among locations), so too should development strategies and policies and conversations.  Big organizations like the IMF and the World Bank have a difficult time seeing the trees, which is why engaged grassroots efforts are necessary (to mix metaphors).  And social media makes it possible to have conversations and engage in the public sphere like never before.  People are doing that in Accra.  Maybe even some of the people at West Hills Mall.

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