Part I: The President of Ghana misfires on think tanks

Part I: The President of Ghana misfires on think tanks
Source: Bright Simons via The Scarab
Date: 01-01-2019 Time: 01:01:34:pm
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In President Akufo-Addo’s latest interaction with the press, he did not miss the opportunity to announce to the world what he thought of the criticisms of his policies by Ghana’s “think tanks”. He believes the criticisms are “bombs” with “little substance to them”. He also made it clear that he would not allow such criticisms to influence the direction of his government in any way.

Considering that the primary goal of most think tanks around the world is to persuade Governments to take their analysis and critiques seriously, the President’s comments amount to a virtual dismissal of the role of think tanks in Ghana. In my brief visit to Ghana this month, I learnt from conversations with some think tank leaders how dimly these high-level political sentiments are viewed by the policy community.

This is surprising since President Akufo-Addo and his aides seem very keen on showing his openness to ideas from all sections of society. Visits by all manner of “influencers” are prominently promoted in the press by the Presidential PR team.

By my count, more show artists – from Wisa Gried and D-Black to Stonebwoy and Shatta Wale – have been granted televised audiences with this President in his first two years in office than any other President in Ghana’s history. Clearly, the President seeks to portray his administration as an “open” one, a “listening government”.

Just recently, Ghanaian music star, Sarkodie, warned darkly about economic developments in the country and requested another audience with the President.

Other artists have been equally uncharitable about developments in Ghana. Yet, we haven’t seen the President greet their comments with the sweeping contempt that he recently showed to think tanks in Ghana.

This is surprising; after all think tanks spend their professional time examining government policy in order to enrich public debate about the correctness of the course politicians are taking the nation. Is there not room to argue that politicians ought to be even more tolerant of them, since this is their primary role in society?

The President’s words have emboldened his followers to mobilise ill feelings towards think tanks, their work and the motives that guide that work. The resulting climate breeds misguided attitudes about the nature of government policies and projects.

Government policies and projects are not really “products” bearing the “brands” of political parties, with the President being the chief brand ambassador.

By choosing to treat them as such and frequently seeking “exclusive ownership” of these public policies enacted in the collective interest of Ghanaians, the President and his Administration have been led down the path of treating every critique, not as an opportunity to refine these policies and projects, but as attacks that must be repelled if possible, or otherwise dismissed.

Policies and projects are actually processes – means to the ends of broad, inclusive, development. They are techniques that must be calibrated and adjusted continuously to get us to where we deserve to be as a nation.

Thus, any criticism that offers suggestions for improved methods of recalibrating these processes must be examined carefully, openly, and rigorously, and discarded only if upon scrutiny it is obvious that the promised improvement is ephemeral or unlikely.

Only a climate that encourages deep, rigorous, and rich debate can allow such attitudes to flourish. The media certainly has a role to play, and I pray that in 2019 they go to even greater length to encourage discussion on flaws and potential improvements of all Government policies, no matter how much politicians try to brand them as sensitive and vital to their re-election efforts.

Policies are not props for re-election, even if political marketing is made much easier if we treat policies as the exclusive intellectual property of ruling parties, to be defended at all cost in order to score political points, without regard to whether the policies can be made much better than they are through fearless exposure of their flaws.

And flaws are the natural features of all political instruments, since they reflect compromises across competing interests. Every government policy is likely to be full of flaws, some of them due to the way our institutions are set up and others due to competition among factions in government and society leading to contradictions held up as compromises. There is also the fact of principal-agent discord, which results in civil servants and politicians advancing the interests of tiny elites instead of the broader public interest.

For all these reasons, it is wise and prudent to automatically assume flaws in any new government policy and project, and aggressively expose them whilst proposing improvements. In the process of open, rich, debate, some of the improvements could hopefully be realised, and the whole system moved up a notch to generate policies with fewer flaws than before.

It is only through such an iterative, constant-improvement, culture that Ghanaian governments will get to a point where new policies show an improvement over past ones, thereby transforming the very quality of the system. Right now, we often see policies that are worse than the ones they are ostensibly replacing.

Many people nowadays look at the Asian economic success stories and completely miss the point. They argue that authoritarian state-led development models have shown that democratic debate can be stifled even at the same time as bureaucratic efficiency grows, leading to better overall development outcomes. This is a gross vulgarisation of what has happened in places like South Korea, Taiwan, China, Singapore and Vietnam.

True, all these countries during their development have had taboo topics over which public debate has been suppressed at one stage of their state evolution or the other. But all of them, once they commenced the process of economic reform and transformative development, emphasised strong policy debate.

They became learning states. Post – Deng Xiaoping China is most instructive in this regard. Anyone who pays any serious attention to actual Chinese policy discourse (as opposed to caricatures refracted through Western lenses) is immediately struck by the degree of depth and breadth of the scope of Chinese debate.

Chinese analysts compete for attention by pointing out flaws in grand government policy, and they benefit from an atmosphere of general reverence for intellectual hard work and heavy lifting. China’s government is teeming with committees upon committees that interact with non-Government analysts. Nor is it true that such debate is restricted to government-sanctioned Academia. Voices range from newspaper pundits to those rising up from the fast-emerging risk consulting landscape.

Of course, there are taboo topics, from Xinjiang to Tibet to Falun Gong, but restrictions almost always apply to attempts to mobilise actual political action in respect of these subjects and almost never to intellectual debate.

The Learning State is one where leaders take pride in being perpetual policy students, constantly refining their methods of problem-solving as they learn more from a broad array of sources. The state sector may itself become an apprentice to more dynamic sectors in order to hone its capacity, especially in emerging areas like digital technologies, where states everywhere are usually backward.

In Part II of this article, I provide examples to back my arguments that flaws are the natural features of Government policy, for which reason the automatic posture of every citizen should be to probe every Government policy for flaws, treating them as processes in search of solutions instead of as branded products of the ruling government, and then, to the limit of such citizens’ capacity, to offer suggestions for improvement.

Such a climate, far from creating an obstruction to much-needed progress, should rather encourage the growth of a Learning State that makes fewer mistakes over time and solves social problems much more effectively with every new try.

 


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