Ghana’s hydro-class struggles



– Notwithstanding the horrific soccer stadium disaster in which at least 165

people were killed in a police-incited stampede on May 9, the past week offered

signs of genuine hope in Ghana.


been privileged to witness a careful regrouping of the country’s former

revolutionary student/community movement, which is strengthening its political

base by addressing two key areas of economic and social strife: the legacy of

structural adjustment and water privatisation.


was the case recently in Bolivia, Ecuador and South Africa, Ghana’s capital city

and rural areas could witness rising protest in coming months. The combination

of neoliberal economic policies and the commodification of water could well

drive ordinary Ghanaians to the streets.


would be bad news for a vociferous US ideologue of neoliberalism, Thomas

Friedman of the New York Times, who visited Accra in late April and declared

that Africans want free markets, penetration by multinational corporations and

the Clinton Administration’s African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000 (AGOA).

"While the protesters in Quebec were busy denouncing globalization in the name

of Africans and the world’s poor," wrote Friedman on April 24, "Africans

themselves will tell you that their problem with globalization is not that they

are getting too much of it, but too little."

Friedman cited just one Ghanaian, George Apenteng of the Institute for Economic

Affairs, which is funded by transnational corporations, including Kaiser

Aluminum and Unilever.

A far

better informant would have been Charles Abugre, director of ISODEC, the

Integrated Social Development Centre, whose 68 staff do top-quality radical

analysis, publishing, development projects, community organising, Africa-wide

and international networking, and unrelenting advocacy.


is not having a positive effect in Ghana," says Abugre. "We see it merely as an

instrument for opening Ghana’s markets in the name of promoting US investments.

For Friedman to argue that AGOA will be the means by which we can penetrate the

US market is a delusion. The main effect of AGOA is to link aid to economic

reform, by which is meant the dismantling of state regulatory environment. There

are no benefits, and the costs include clear manifestations of deepening

structural adjustment and deregulation."

ISODEC and its allies in the African Trade and Development Network are

campaigning to roll back AGOA. Abugre calls for vigilance from US-based Africa

solidarity activists. "We are protesting AGOA in civil society groups across

Africa and are placing it on the agenda of the Organisation of African Unity and

UN Economic Commission for Africa. AGOA is simply another way of undermining

Africa’s ability to mobilise domestic resources for development, and of

enforcing an anti- developmental trade regime."


decades ago, Abugre and several of ISODEC’s other leaders were amongst those

responsible for giving Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings a social power base of

enormous importance–to their great regret.


after taking control of the students’ June 4 Movement and gaining state power in

a December 1981 coup, Rawlings did a vicious political U-turn within months,

forcing the lead activists into exile, jailing thousands, and killing hundreds.


final straw was the young leftists’ defeat after a national debate in late 1982

over whether Ghana should turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a

structural adjustment loan programme. Though public opinion was clearly with the

student movement, conservative opportunists emerged and helped Rawlings turn

right, though he retained his nationalist demagoguery.


story of Ghana’s revolutionary moment and its squashing is well told by Zaya

Yeebo in his book, Ghana: The Struggle for Popular Power, published in 1991 by

New Beacon Books of London.)

During the 1980s-90s the IMF and World Bank ran roughshod over Ghana, helping

open the country’s doors to Western governments whose aid schemes nearly

invariably failed. US administrations became friendlier, capped by a visit from

Bill Clinton in 1998. Formal democracy was finally restored in 1992 (Rawlings

was then elected twice amidst a mediocre field and boycotts by opposition

parties due to blatant vote-rigging).

Amidst the chaos and underdevelopment, Ghana was officially considered amongst

Africa’s star neoliberal pupils, boasting an average of 4.4% economic growth a

year from the mid-1980s to 2000.


last December, after two decades in which the average annual income of the

country’s 18 million people never rose above $400, disgruntled voters replaced

the ruling National Democratic Congress with the New Patriotic Party, led by

John Kufuor.


gullible neoliberal in practice, Kufuor at least concedes the obvious when

pressed. On May 7, ISODEC hosted a conference on the effects of two decades of

World Bank policies. Kufuor sent a message with this frank admission: "After 20

long years of implementing structural adjustment programmes, our economy has

remained weak and vulnerable and not sufficiently transformed to sustain

accelerated growth and development. Poverty has become rather widespread,

unemployment very high, manufacturing and agriculture in decline and our

external and domestic debts much too heavy a burden to bear."


local World Bank resident representative, Peter Harrold, confessed that Kufuor

was right. Agreeing that the Bank had ignored Ghanaian social priorities, he

pledged more support to loan programmes specifically aimed at uplifting the

poor. Water system "restructuring" was one example, given the failure of Ghana’s

state company to provide affordable clean water to about 60% of urban residents.

But a

few days later, on May 17, Harrold was lambasted in front of several hundred

more civil society delegates at an ISODEC public forum on water. In his defense,

Harrold bragged not only of coordinating a rural water investment scheme to

supply communal taps to villages under certain conditions. He also actively

promotes the leasing, over 10-25 years, of two large urban water systems to

supply several million residents. Five multinational corporations have already

bid for the contracts.

Replying to Harrold, development practitioner Danumin Subiniman–who coordinates

numerous rural northern Ghanaian water schemes paid for by a 1999 Bank

loan–complained that "full cost recovery, the demand driven approach and World

Bank conditionality of 5% upfront payment are fully enforced."


"these cost too much," insists Subiniman, and are responsible for numerous rural

system failures. A deadly epidemic of Guinea worm, a debilitating waterborn

parasite, has broken out.


is water quality testing provided in poor areas, says Subiniman. And because the

Bank and state insist on full cost-recovery from poor people, "huge sums of

their income are being spent on capital and maintenance."


forum also unveiled that the Bank and state’s full cost-recovery strategy

assumes water can be stripped of "public goods" (or what economists term merit

goods, or externalities). Reduced to the status of commodity, water should be

bought and sold in the marketplace.


according to the 1999 Bank water loan documentation cosigned by Harrold, "It is

assumed that the health benefits known to users are captured in their

willingness to pay for good quality water."

Abugre objects that the Bank’s "willingness to pay" surveys are ludicrous.

Instead, in a context of terribly low levels of "ability to pay," in rural areas

that basically survive without cash incomes, the benefits that flow from disease

abatement, gender equity and economic spin-offs justify much greater water



moreover, says Abugre, "Water is a human right. Without it, there can be no

life. We cannot let it become a mere commodity."

Harrold may have failed the rural poor with his dogmatic refusal to subsidise

operating and maintenance expenses. But his contribution to the privatisation

debate is more complex.


year, Harrold derailed the first attempt to lease Accra’s water system because

of bribery–allegedly worth $5 million, and implicating Rawlings’ wife–by an

Enron subsidiary. Other multinational water companies had complained about the

bribe and non-competitive bid, and this incident gave Harrold a chance to

reverse the Bank’s local image for being soft on corruption.


Bank remains desperate to claim an anglofone West African privatisation success

story, and so Harrold is making the urban water leases a precondition for

Ghana’s access to debt relief via the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.


progressive Washington groups, led by Rob Weissman of Essential Action and Sara

Grusky of Globalization Challenge Initiative are trying to make water-

privatisation conditionality illegal, following on their success last year in a

congressional campaign to stop imposition of user fees via Bank health/education



the ISODEC forum, I was joined by three South African comrades who pointed out

the many drawbacks to privatising water, and the need for a

public-people-partnership alternative. Soweto activist Trevor Ngwane told the

story of the community/labour Anti- Privatisation Forum in Johannesburg, while

Lance Veotte and Victor Mhlongo of the SA Municipal Workers Union reported on

struggles to make South Africa’s decrepid, bureaucratic state water apparatus

finally accountable to low-income people (see



fact, remarked a commentator from the floor, the appalling conditions that Accra

water consumers face directly reflect class power and segregation. Virtually all

upper- income people have no problem accessing clean tap water and water-borne

sewerage in Accra’s bourgeois neighbourhoods; virtually all low-income people

have irregular or nonformal access to water. Ghana’s neoliberal state works for

the rich, not for the poor.


now clever Mr Harrold intervenes, with a devious way of capitalising on

resentment against the Ghana Water Company, so as to promote privatisation. The

Bank has played a triple trick on Ghanaian society since Rawlings came to power:


running down the state, so that privatisation appears as the only alternative to

public service failure;


exacerbating class inequality in society, so it is logical to argue that the

existing system is biased toward the rich (and hence claim that privatisation

will actually benefit the poor); and


compelling the state to raise water tariffs (prices) sharply before

privatisation so that the chosen multinational corporation would be spared

public anger.

Harrold could therefore claim to the ISODEC forum that only a private supplier

can extend the system to the poor and fix the leaks system responsible for half

of Accra’s water never being charged for.


triple gambit was first used to promote water privatisation in the Bank’s main

pilot project, Buenos Aires, as two of my academic colleagues in the Municipal

Services Project have just shown in a recent study (http://www.queensu.ca/msp).


then, is where internationalism is evolving from solidarity into concrete

alliances with Ghana’s poor and working people. There are increasingly similar

institutional enemies in the hydro-class struggles: the Bank and multinational

water companies (best critiques at



Accra, Harrold immediately ran into difficulty when a secret document revealed

that "cherry-picking"–i.e., avoiding poor areas–will be built into the leases

that will govern the city’s water.


Bank and Ghanaian government’s "Information Memorandum"–tellingly labeled on

page i, "strictly confidential"– was prepared by Stone and Webster Consultants

of Washington, DC. "Rather than expansion" of the water supply to low- income

urban communities, the privatisers are instructed by the document not to

"displace" the existing super-exploitative private-sector watertankers who have

monopolised supply to low-income communities.


with this evidence, the community groups at the forum constituted a "Ghana

National Coalition Against the Privatization of Water" to "ensure that the

ownership, control and management of water services remain in public hands."


deepening of the movement is what we failed to do twenty years ago,"

acknowledged veteran activist Rudolf Amenga-Etego of ISODEC. "Our naivety and

overconfidence as young student activists led us to believe that if we could

catalyse a left-wing coup, we could march into power and reconstruct society

from above. But as you see from the state of our country, it ended in disaster."


smiled. "Now we know that building this movement against structural adjustment

and water commodification from the bottom up is the only way to succeed. It may

take a few more years but we won’t be deterred from this path."

(Patrick Bond, based at Wits University and the Alternative Information and

Development Centre in Johannesburg, is at

[email protected])




Leave a comment