The past days have brought about renewed discussions on the way forward for the management of the Ghanaian economy in the face of global and locally-generated challenges. Some of the suggestions have centered around the need to review the Free Senior High School policy implementation which began in 2017. Others have called for the cancellation of Teacher and Nursing Trainee allowances. Additionally, some of the prescribed pills includes cutting down on government expenditure, while improving on domestic revenue mobilization.
These are fantastic ideas, except that we have come too late on some of these, exposing a clear inconsistency on the side of our society. It calls to question what our interests are when those who are seeking power to implement policies that would impact on our well-being come to our homes to seek the mandate. We know what is right, we know what policies would benefit us as a society and yet, because of political interests, we shy away from dealing with the challenges of some of the promises head-on.
At least, in the lead up to the 2020 elections in Ghana, we have had the benefit of reviewing the reintroduction of Teacher and Nursing Trainee allowances. We have had the opportunity to examine the implications of Free SHS on our economy. We have had the opportunity of examining the huge borrowings that the country embarked upon since 2017 and the size and conduct of government. We blatantly ignored the calls, we watched while those who have raised critical issues that would have a bearing on our livelihoods were mocked at.
For instance, moral society went to bed, or looked on unconcerned, when the calls by the former President John Dramani Mahama, then candidate for the National Democratic Congress (NDC) to the effect of reviewing the Free SHS policy was construed to mean cancellation of the policy, and this was led by no mean a person than the President of the Republic, Nana Akufo-Addo. They missed an opportunity to be heard. Moral society looked on unperturbed until this important call that is being made today, was taken to the cleaners. I am sure we would be reaping the benefits if this call was taken onboard many months on. It would have saved some money for our use as a country.
On the subject matter of Free Senior High School, I have stated in some earlier publications that, it was a good policy. Indeed, the two leading political parties have come to appreciate that it is a policy that has come to stay. But, the challenge and point of departure, is the ideology of who must benefit from this policy.
I have, in previous publications, questioned how it made economic sense for a nation to offer Free SHS to the child of a parent who had no problem paying thousands of dollars to educate the child at the Basic School level in private international basic schools. I have emphasized that by giving free education at the Senior High Level, we were rather favouring those who have. We were ostensibly, giving our best public senior high schools for free to those who are influential and have the financial wherewithal to afford such schools for their wards.
Readers would admit that majority of Ghana’s educational challenges are found at the basic level. Even though we pride ourselves to have implemented the Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (FCUBE) at the basic level, there is evidence of lack of infrastructure as well as learning materials across the various basic schools. This has given advantage to private operators of basic schools who have invested heavily to attract the attention of parents who want their children to perform better at the BECE level to gain access to Secondary education. On the contrary, when it comes to Senior High Schools, the majority of schools that are rated among the best are found to be owned by the state/public/government.
However, instead of government to take advantage of this investment it had made to ensure that those who can afford are allowed to pay fees, this government chose to lay these facilities for free to parents who had no sweat paying in foreign currencies to educate their wards in private basic schools.
What is even worrying, remains the provision of boarding facilities to these students free of charge. And this is supposed to be a developing country, a country that struggles to balance its budget, and has always been found with a cup in arms going to seek for loans to be able to fund recurrent expenditure. To borrow money and waste on funding the boarding comfort of children whose parents can afford education is a matter that one can only struggle to understand – how do we pay back the loans? That should remain the critical question on our lips.
It was important for the framers of the policy to have excluded boarding students from this free SHS package. Even if tuition was to be offered free of charge, what of the food, the utilities, and facilities that are provided? Aren’t we wasting too much?
A couple of weeks ago, I sat in a commercial vehicle and came across an enumerator who wore a shirt with the inscription ANNUAL HOUSEHOLD INCOME AND EXPENDITURE SURVEY (AHIES), and I got intrigued with many questions on my mind. I asked if we had a mechanism like this that provides us record of income and expenditure of households in this country. I got curious and went online to check if there were any such reports. To my amazement, there were 7 editions on the internet. I took the pain to download the 2019 report and this was the preface “The Ghana Living Standards Survey (GLSS) provides information for understanding and monitoring living conditions in Ghana. This is the seventh round of a nation-wide household survey. The data collection was over a period of 12 months (22nd October, 2016 to 17th October, 2017).”
What this simply meant was that at least, leading to the implement of the Free SHS, this data existed and the 7th edition was almost ready. How difficult was it therefore for the government to put in place a measure that could have determined households by their incomes and be able to identify potential students who could not afford secondary education if they must pay and be offered scholarships?
Today, you hear those who are prescribing solutions mentioning scholarships to secondary students as against the wholesale free SHS as if we did not know this even before the 2016 elections. As far back the 2014/2015 academic year, a list of needy students were identified by then government and awarded scholarships at the secondary level. The policy was intended to be expanded subsequently to enable as many students who are needy, the opportunity to access secondary education.
In order to ensure that education was accessible while rendering free education, the previous administration of John Mahama, noting the cost involved in running boarding schools on free basis, decided to build community day schools which school children would only access during the day and go back home. This adds no additional cost to government. It was good to criticize the policy for some of the locations of the schools, but these were cited at places where the chiefs elected. Unfortunately, the whole policy and programme was bastardized, and described as useless. Today, those prescribing solutions are calling for the cancellation of the wholesale free senior high school education while advocating for availability of community senior high schools. Are we not back to what was started ahead of the 2016 elections? Can we imagine the savings we would have made as a nation if we had continued on that trajectory and not swayed by political rhetorics that have brought us back to the same subject after 5 years?
It is clear we set out priorities wrong, and it is not wrong for us to bite the bullet, but we must first admit we went the wrong direction. Unfortunately, the government is not ready to shift from the direction of distraction. Government is still pretending that all is well, that the management guidelines of the economy remain sound even when the outcomes are telling us otherwise. So how can we cure this matter when those who are speaking of a new trajectory are not those with the power to cause the change?
If we must cancel Teacher and Nursing Trainee allowances, we must engage in a public debate. Like the case advanced for free SHS, if we are able to get the enrolment in the Senior High Schools right, we can tell those who are on government scholarships, we can tell those who have fallen into the scholarship domain subsequently as they progress in education (occurring sometimes from loss of breadwinner) and be able to rope them in whenever they intend to go into Teaching or Nursing. It only seems that we are not ready to do the hard work to solve the critical teething problems. We must task people to work, and work to solve problems and not always end up creating bigger problems than they have come to meet.
On the issue of our fiscal difficulty today, I am sure we were all aware of the red flags. The ‘recklessness’ in government use of borrowed funds was a subject for the 2020 campaign. Issues were raised on how government was doling out monies to selected individuals in the name of helping during Covid-19 with funds that we knew we would be back to pay for. One critical question that remains unanswered is, ‘how have we used the Covid-19 funds?’. As at last assessment, over Ghc33 billion came into the hands of government specifically for use in dealing with Covid-19. This is outside of all other domestic revenues mobilised.
Just this year, a Covid-19 levy has been imposed on all of us. At least, what is the levy aimed at? If the levy was meant to defray a certain cost, must we not know the cost which would inform us how long this levy would be administered? Why must we be slapped with a levy when we do not know what the levy is aimed at dealing with? We have been denied the opportunity to know how the over Ghc33 billion was used, and this cannot be allowed to go unanswered.
As it stands, government’s drive for domestic revenue mobilization is hitting a challenge because the reason for which government is seeking money, is not different from the reasons for which the citizens do not have money. In this instance, the option opened for government is to check itself first. By checking itself, and as suggested among others, government must reduce its spending (reduce government size by merging ministries that were merged until 2017 allowing about 9 ministers to manage a ministry which was hitherto managed by 3 ministers, reduce cost of government utilities, reduce travelling to only essentials travels, abandon the rental of a luxurious private jet at a huge cost to the taxpayer, sacrifice portions of their already high salaries and allowances). In addition, government must be sensitive enough to reduce taxes on petroleum products to drive down cost of travel to productive activities that would bring the economy back, reduce cost of transport of food items, among others. These would provide some respite to the people and motivate them to sacrifice further to help government.
The phenomenon where government officials are rationalizing their performance which has proven abysmal in the face of the people, living large and ostentatious, driving high powered vehicles, justifying and equalizing fuel prices and exchange rates which are far higher than what the people knew in far back 2016, would rather annoy the people. It must be stated that if in 2016, a Ghc100 could afford a vehicle owner or driver 6 and half gallons of fuel, and today, that same value of Ghc100 can afford 2 and half gallons, I cannot wrap my mind around how someone can boldly stand up to compare these two scenarios.
The reality is that the suffering of the people have intensified and deviated from what they were promised. Citing global challenges isn’t a substitute for lack of competence. Indeed, as at the time of seeking power, it is demonstrable competence that the people use to hand power to a government. There is never a time that the people can predict a global challenge many years into a government before they decide who takes the power. For this reason, laying prostrate to global challenges as the cause of this openly helpless management of the economy, only goes to emphasize the point that the managers of the economy have no ideas on how to handle the current challenge.
It has already been established by the Country Director of World Bank, Pierre Frank Laporte that the woes of the economy were spotted long before Covid-19, and definitely, the happenings in Ukraine and Russia are not the root causes of our economic woes. A comparative analysis exposed the fact that Ghana is the country with the highest price of fuel out of 33 countries in African which were sampled.
Something must be done, and must be done quickly. The silence of government remains a worrying situation, and a communication on the way forward must be done without further delay.