I learned an important life lesson from a young man Colby Haverkamp on LinkedIn on January 11, 2023 . He posted a picture of me surrounded by his wife, his sister, and himself. And it read “Pro Tip on How to be Successful”. I panicked when I saw the post. I knew Colby Haverkamp well. After a chance encounter, we had arranged to meet a few times and to have discussions over coffee. I also recall inviting him and his family to my home for dinner. But what was the purpose of his post? To (very mistakenly) present me as the epitome of success?
I was relieved when I read the post. Colby had a very simple message on how to be successful in life: “Be curious. Just ask people about themselves”. I reflected on his message and was struck by the wisdom embedded in it. I will share his post and explain why it so resonated with me.
Yes, I was moved by the genuine interest that Colby Haverkamp showed in me and my story and, over time, Colby became a trusted friend and someone with whom I could share my thoughts and learn from. Colby reminded me so much of the America (and Americans) that I came to meet in the U.S. as an impressionable 15-year-old student, fresh from Ghana.
It was in the early 1960s, at the very beginning of the Civil Rights movement. I had been plucked from Ghana and inserted in a very alien environment that was very agitated. Racism and antisemitism were rampant. I attended Windsor Mountain School1 in Lenox, Massachusetts (and later Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts) both of which could be said to be vehemently against bigotry of any sort, and champions of the fight to erase the “inhumanity of man to man”.
But the anti-discrimination movement aside, it was an America that was curious about other cultures and societies. I remember, as a student and later as a young lecturer, that I would grow tired of answering incessant questions about “Africa”. It was exasperating because I felt I knew a few things about Ghana but I was no “Africa Expert”.
It was a time when, after decades of isolationism, Americans seemed eager to exchange experiences with the rest of the World. Indeed, I won a scholarship to the United States because Windsor Mountain School as small as it was, had a scholarship program for foreign students from Africa. Brandeis University also had the Larry Wien International Fellowship program of which I was a direct beneficiary. Outside my immediate environment, there was the Peace Corps that sent young, curious, and dedicated Americans to Africa and other developing countries to live, learn, and teach. There was also ASPAU2 (that brought African students to American Universities) as well as AFGRAD,3 etc.
It also coincided with PAX AMERICANA and the heyday of American influence in the World. I contend that this came to an end with the unjust, unnecessary, and unholy Vietnam War during which America adopted the “know it all” posture. American curiosity about the rest of the world became substituted with America’s new chant: “we know it all, we have the best political system in the world, and take it from us, we know what is best for you.”
Parallels with the Decline in Good Governance in Ghana.
To my mind, the parallels with the decline in Good Governance in Ghana could not be clearer: The political class has ceased to be curious about the Ghanaian population. The political class no longer has an interest in people’s lives, interests, passions, frustrations, and hopes. Rather, politicians vying for power bombard Ghanaians with inflated and embellished curriculum vitae. Prospective candidates rewrite Ghana’s recent political, economic, and governance record to herald the achievements of past governments formed by their political parties. Above all, candidates for political office make claims about their own character (honesty and incorruptibility) and promise Ghanaians a spectacular future of unparalleled accomplishments, if they are elected.
No one bothers to ask Ghanaians how they are faring and what changes they would like to see in Ghana’s body politic. Each political party assumes that the population is/was unhappy (indeed very unhappy) with the rule of the rival political administration and cannot wait for the other political party to assume/retain the reigns of power. Really?
But what if the political class were curious and showed genuine interest in the population? What would they learn that they don’t know already? What did Professor John Evans Atta Mills learn when he went door to door in 2007/2008 to confer with voters, to solicit their views, and to ask for their votes in his quest to build “A Better Ghana”? Was it why he set up the Constitutional Review Commission?
A 2023 Ghanaian Wish List
As a Ghanaian citizen who has been very close to power (2009 – 2016), a keen observer/analyst of Ghana’s political and economic history, and currently a private citizen, budding farmer (if I can rescue my father’s farmland from encroachers), and family head (with definite but very weak links to a political party), I had prepared a wish list for 2023 that I was confident most Ghanaians will share. But, alas, no one asked me or any Ghanaian for a list. Thus, when Solidaire Ghana approached me in my capacity as Honorary President to craft a New Year message to Ghanaians, I eagerly dusted off my wishlist and presented it as a message to Ghana. Unfortunately, the message was transformed into another New Year prophecy loudly proclaiming that “2023 will not be good for Ghanaians – Cadman Mills”4.
The 2023 Wishlist, it turned out, was identical to the wish lists for every year since 2009. With Colby Haverkamp’s inspiration, I would preface the Wishlist by praying that Ghanaians elect leaders from now on who are genuinely curious about the welfare of the population. The list is a long one, but it is not cast in stone. It can (must) be debated, amended, and refined before they are adopted. I limit myself to four of the most obvious.
I. Top on the list would be the reform of the political campaign financing laws in Ghana. This is the root cause of major dysfunctions in Ghanaian politics from corruption, mis procurement, cronyism, and disregard for the common good. There must be limits on individual and corporate campaign contributions which should be declared, accounted for, and audited.
II. A constitutional review is imperative to render Parliament as an independent (of the Executive) branch of government with a mandate to represent the will of the people. The constitutional prescription that at least 50% of cabinet minister should come from Parliament, is an aberration which makes Parliament a mere rubberstamp of the Executive Branch. It should be dispensed with.
III. A new Procurement Act, which criminalizes conflict of interest, is sorely needed. It is not alright to award contracts to family, friends, business associates, and party members no matter how qualified they are. An independent watchdog should be established to review all procurement for public works beyond a certain threshold.
IV. Reform of the Emolument Laws in Ghana. It is not right for public officials to accept “gifts” from private individuals, corporations (domestic and foreign) as well as foreign governments, even if there are no immediate and obvious quid pro quos. All gifts beyond a certain symbolic amount must be promptly declared and turned over to the public coffers, if they cannot be declined.
CONCLUSION: 2023 AND BEYOND
For the record, I am not in the business of making prophesies and least of all prophesies about economic outcomes for countries like Ghana. I have been a long enough observer of dependent commodity exporting countries to conclude that volatility is the bane of such economies. For all I know, 2023 will be a fabulous year for Ghana if commodity prices double (and why not quadruple?)
However, imagine how much better things could be if systemic reforms were undertaken in Ghana. For these reasons I echo the insistence of Solidaire Ghana that these reforms are conditions precedent for “bringing into fruition the many institutional checks and balances needed for rapid, sustainable and equitable growth”
HAPPY NEW YEAR 2023!
 See https://www.amazon.com/Windsor-Mountain-School-Berkshire-Institution/dp/1626194432 by Roselle Kline Chartock. The preface is notable: “When their Jewish heritage and progressive philosophies made the Bondy family a target of the Nazi regime, they were forced to sell their school and start anew in America. Max and Gertrud Bondy first opened their innovative school in Windsor, Vermont, and moved the campus to Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1944. Windsor Mountain School was ahead of its time–the faculty honored diversity, and it became the first co-ed integrated boarding school in Berkshire County. Families like the Belafontes, Poitiers and Campanellas were attracted to the school for its multicultural and international curriculum. From its golden age to the rock-and-roll era, Windsor Mountain strived to stay true to its mission until hard financial times forced the school to close in 1975. Roselle Kline Chartock captures the spirit of this Berkshire boarding school that still lives on in the hearts of its alumni.