The origins of inequality in Ghana lie in geography – the lower rainfall, savannah vegetation, and remote and inaccessible location of much of the north; the pre-colonial relationships between kingdoms and tribes; and the colonial dispensation which ensured that northern Ghana was a labour-reserve for the southern mines and forest economy; and the post-colonial failure to break the established pattern.
Colonial policy for the north affirmed its subordinate economic and political position. In addition to actively promoting labour migration, government prevented investment and adopted a ‘protective’ attitude toward the population – which kept northerners apart from the development that colonialism brought elsewhere.
Politically, independent Ghana has been adept at including northerners in the allocation of political and bureaucratic posts. However, while this strategy of ‘containment’ benefits the individuals concerned, it is not often easy to see significant benefits flowing to the north – other than the fruit of pork-barrel politics.
Conflict has always been contained, but the conditions leading to conflict have never been resolved – with the risk that re-awakened conflicts will continue to deter investment in the north. And the threat of that underlying insecurity makes Ghana prey to broader West African conflicting forces.
A degree of targetting the north for compensatory poverty reduction (human development, targetted local infrastructure) has been a feature of all democratically elected governments, but this has stopped well-short of any programme to transform the north. All this indicates a limited elite commitment to regional balance.
The reluctance to decentralise properly has prevented local or regional elites from tailoring responsibility for development of the district or region: the northern elite have been able to ‘free ride’ on the limited decentralisation process, and abstain from serious responsibility and accountability to its electorate.
Economically, there were positive effects of the import-substitution model on regional development, especially through the ‘rice revolution’ and investments in cotton production in the 1970s. The state invested in creating institutional infrastructure – in banking, marketing and processing as well as research and extension services – which supported agricultural development.
Although these developments benefitted the well-off most, a large proportion of ‘peasant’ farmers were also involved; and, as usual, they participated enthusiastically – whether it was in vertically integrated cotton operations or accessing second-hand tractors for small- and medium-scale mechanised rice farming. For the first time, an integrated labour market emerged in the north; which contributed to tightening the national labour market and raising real wages for labourers.
From the 1980s, donors and international NGOs concentrated their efforts substantially in the north, and northern Ghana offers a case-study of what can and cannot be done by the international community in a region where the state has abdicated responsibility for development – at least to a large degree. A key achievement has been the proliferation of local associations and NGOs – a flourishing of civil society outside the political parties, which are focused principally on political power. This means that northern Ghanaian society is mobilised for development at the local level in a way that is exceptional – certainly in Ghana and perhaps more widely.
The results began to appear in Ghana’s outcome statistics, with the north out-performing the south in terms of improvements in human development indicators in the late 1990s. The international community’s focus on human development in the north offers exit routes for people, but only if human capital improvements lead to greater returns: the evidence so far is that the economic returns on education in Ghana, for example, are very limited. This means that human development as the main development strategy to address inter-regional inequality has limitations.
There is growing evidence of conscious efforts under the Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy (GPRS) to target the north and other deprived areas of Ghana under GPRS. The GPRS recognised regional inequality and initially built-in some mechanisms to benefit the north disproportionately.
In December 2007, following persistent demands by citizens reinforced by a major UN assessment of the chronic conditions of poverty in northern Ghana, government announced the establishment of a GH¢25million fund for northern Ghana’s development and called for preparation of a comprehensive strategy for the development of northern Ghana.
The government of President John Atta Mills had been presented a more ambitious strategy for northern Ghana’s development and emphasised the need to expand the concept to cover the entire Northern Savannah Ecological zone – going beyond the three northern regions to include districts in northern Volta Region and northern Brong Ahafo Region.
This concept was referred to as the Savannah Accelerated Development Strategy (SADA), and an associated Authority was its institutional manifestation.
Passage of the SADA Act, Act 805, required the seed-fund be paid to the secretariat for implementing the policy aimed at bridging the poverty gap between Northern and Southern Ghana.
These are direct interventions by government to bridge the long-established north-south inequality that has been rooted in our recent history.
In recent years, Ghana has experienced a significantly better performance in terms of economic growth and poverty reduction. But there is a fly in the ointment: in terms of development, a major North-South gap still prevails.
Indeed, some 60% of the poorest populations are to be found in the three northern regions. They are lagging at all levels: poverty, health, education, sanitation, unemployment, etc.
Indeed, the Savannah Region is home to a third of people living in poverty and three-fifths of people living in extreme poverty in Ghana.
Yet it has 55% of the country’s arable land and abundant water resources, thanks to the Volta River and Lake – which is the largest artificial lake in the world.
Several inequality reports have consistently labelled the Northern Region as one of concern. Its rate of poverty level decline has remained very slow: from a poverty rate of 55.7% in 2006 to 50.4% in 2012. Southern Ghana enjoys a lower poverty incidence at 45%.
There have been numerous programmes to develop the north since Ghana gained political independence in 1957. Unfortunately, most either underperformed or failed.
Development policies in the north have targetted food production instead of infrastructural development. But food production can’t transform the north without better transport links.
Recently, the Head of Programmes, Campaigns and Innovations at ActionAid, Justin Bayor, delivered a presentation at the University for Development Studies’ Harmattan School, on the theme ‘Bridging the Gap between North and South; the NGO’s Perspective’; and called for the Northern Development Authority (NDA) to promote agro-ecology and food sovereignty in order to mitigate the ever-growing threat of agriculture under-productivity and food insecurity.
This is because the north’s vulnerability includes the threat of floods, prolonged droughts, rising temperatures, unreliable rainfall, severe windstorms and other climate-related emergencies which are already negatively impacting agriculture and threatening productivity and food security.