Perhaps more than colonialism, most emigrants like me from Africa routinely blame corruption for much of the continent’s current ills. David Cameron, the former British prime minister, once described Nigeria as a fantastically corrupt country. That label could easily be applied to almost every African country, and we are not wrong in our assessment. While we justly point fingers at predatory officials though, as emigrants, we should also ask whether there is anything we have to answer for.
Although I used to hear rumors about high-level government officials living lavishly at public expense during my childhood days in Ghana, the behavior appeared to be limited to a relatively small group of people. Most citizens were honest and devoted, working diligently to keep the society functioning in spite of the corruption at the top. Even in villages, public schools were good enough to sufficiently educate children from poor families. That was largely due to the selflessness of teachers. Other public institutions worked equally well.
Over time, that strong social fabric unfortunately began to fray. The schools, hospitals, and most social services progressively deteriorated to the point where few citizens depend on them currently. In my recent visits to Ghana, I have always been shocked by the proliferation of private elementary and middle schools all over the country, including villages. Parents, regardless of how poor they are, must find ways to send their children to these private institutions because the public schools barely function. For those children from families that simply cannot afford the tuition, the future is quite bleak. They tend to be part of the nearly 20 percent of African children who, according to the International Labor Organization, are victims of child labor.
Certainly, corruption and mismanagement are mostly responsible for those adverse environmental changes in Ghana. But undoubtedly, emigration has exacerbated it. In the 1960s and 1970s, when practically all Ghanaian families were poor and few people had access to external resources, we all made do with the bare basics available. Because there were few distractions, teachers, doctors, nurses, security services personnel, and everyone else focused on their jobs, making their best efforts. Things changed as more and more Ghanaians emigrated and the country increasingly became unbalanced economically.
Rising income disparity in America and other major countries has been discussed extensively in academia and the press in recent years. The most widely used measure of inequality within countries is the Gini coefficient, which ranges from zero to 100, with zero meaning a perfectly equal society (everyone having the same income) and 100 being a society in which only one person has all the income. According to the most recent World Bank estimates, in 2016, the coefficients for the U.S. and Ghana were 41.5 and 43.5, respectively, which, on the surface, make the two countries look quite similar in terms of economic inequality.
Not all inequalities are created equal, however. U.S. Internal Revenue Service data show that for the 2017 tax year, those earning $250,000 or more in adjusted gross income (AGI), representing just 3.3 percent of all individual tax filers, paid 52.4 percent of the nearly $1.7 trillion of income tax revenue collected by the U.S. government from individuals. Expanding the high-income group to include those making $100,000 or more in AGI results in 18.2 percent of filers contributing 80.3 percent of that revenue intake. The data also show that 29.1 percent of filers, mostly low-income earners, paid no taxes.
There are frequent complaints about the rich in America not paying their fair share of taxes. Even then, high-income Americans clearly contribute significant amounts of money to help fund the vast array of public services like education, healthcare, national security, and infrastructure that benefit everyone—including their poorer compatriots.
The picture is quite different in Ghana. Because of the largely informal economy, the country has a small tax base. Worse, tax collection in Ghana is not nearly as efficient as occurs in America, due to the weakness of Ghanaian public institutions. And, some of whatever little is collected is ultimately lost to corruption and wasteful spending. Consequently, the poor in Ghana are considerably worse off than their American counterparts, since lack of funds leads to poor—or non-existent—public services.
Poor Ghanaian families who receive remittances from relatives overseas manage to survive. They are able to send their children to private schools, obtain private healthcare, acquire water and electricity supply systems, and, when necessary, pay for private security services. Those without relatives overseas are generally left to fend for themselves. The desperation those people feel is what drives thousands of people from Ghana and elsewhere in Africa to risk their lives trying to reach Europe and other places in search of opportunities, so they can earn money to take care of themselves and their families.
There is a large body of research linking taxation and good governance. After obtaining their education, nearly all Americans stay and work in their country. Many become middle- and high-income earners over time, and because they pay taxes consistently, they demand accountability from their government. That good administrative performance is what mitigates poverty in America.
Brain drain robs many African countries of that essential element. Emigrants like me generally don’t have the same motivation to demand better governance in the places we left because we don’t live with the day-to-day consequences of bad government. We show our frustration only when we drive on bad roads or experience electricity cuts during our occasional visits.
Quite often, the people in charge there are our classmates who, for various reasons, did not emigrate. Naturally, they want to imitate our new lifestyles. I am convinced that it is one of the reasons corruption has become so endemic in Ghana. Since they cannot afford the “fancy” things we have on their salaries, they have to steal the money from somewhere. Those are resources that could otherwise be used to take care of the very needy in the society. The voiceless poor are thus victimized in multiple ways by our choices.
Essentially, I have been partly responsible for the collapse of public education and other institutions in Ghana. I have a moral obligation therefore to think about how to make amends and help reduce the level of suffering in the country. It is a duty that weighs heavily and constantly on my mind nowadays.