Floods: UN Team Disputes Government's Claim

Fri, 28 Sep 2007 Source: Ofosu-Appiah, Ben


A news item carried by the Ghanaweb and JoyFm on September 20th stated that the UN Disaster Assessment Co-ordinating Team which toured the areas affected by floods in the three Northern regions of Ghana disputed the scale of the devastation as having been grossly exaggerated by the government. The team was in the country to assess the impact of the floods to help the UN provide humanitarian support and food supply to the affected people. After three days of assessing the situation, the leader of the UN team, Gisli Olasson was reported to have said that the situation was not as serious as they were made to believe.

The UN team wanted to see physical evidence of displaced people, collapsed buildings, and evidence of the number of flood reported deaths as the only way to proof a need for humanitarian assistance. In the Upper East region alone the team was told by the Regional Minister that there were 31 deaths, 19,000 homes destroyed and some 90,000 people displaced yet no evidence to support these claims. The leader of the government's delegation Dr. Campari was reported to have said he "wondered what else could be sufficient proof if the team would not be satisfied with official information'. This is where my disappointment lies.

The government's delegation was not convincing at all. I wonder if the leader knows anything about responsible governance, transparency, accountability, and above all negotiation. This attitude of Btake whatever we tell you as the truth won't cut it anywhere perhaps except in Ghana. It is only in Ghana that people don't question official information and is deemed the gospel truth. The UN team was right in demanding evidence because the UN has limited resources which needs to be spend judiciously. If you claim your people need assistance provide the evidence to show that the numbers you have given are truly justifiable. The government could have done a better job in this regard. I am wondering if it is not the usual Ghanaian problem of putting square pegs in round holes that resulted in this bad and unconvincing performance by the government team. Remember "Brownie, you are doing a heck of a job" remark by President Bush to the former FEMA head when Katrina hit? Thank God Brownie was eventually forced out but does that happen in Ghana ?

What prevented the Regional Minster and the government's delegation from mobilizing the affected victims ahead of the team's visit and presenting them to both the local and the international press that accompanied the team? What about taking the team to the families of people who lost loved ones? The mortuary that held the dead and also their burial places? The large tracts of land submerged under water should have been explained to the team as farms of corn, millets, yams etc the staple food of the North and the country which have all been destroyed and thus the whole country faces a famine threat as a result. That would have been more convincing than "take whatever we tell you as the truth without question attitude".

You see in the West, when a disaster strikes and people are displaced, they are housed in gymnasiums, or disaster evacuation centers, or in tents as temporary shelter waiting for assistance. In our African societies we have no such disaster evacuation centers, we have no gymnasiums to evacuate those affected by disaster, we don't even have tents to provide temporary shelter. So the UN team was expecting to see thousands of displaced people being housed in gyms, evacuation centers, and tents before believing the government's story. Another important point which the government’s delegation woefully failed to make was invoking our African traditional values of taking a relative in need in no matter what to explain the situation of not seeing thousands of displaced people.

Our African traditional value system will not allow us to leave a relative or a friend however distant the relations my be to sleep outside when his house is destroyed and has no food to eat. We will bring the person in even if we live in a single room and share the little food we have with him and his family. We all share a strong sense of collective responsibility towards family members (and the definition of family here is very broad indeed) and distant relatives so we will take them in, more so in a situation where there is no temporary shelter provided by the government and it's useless organization called NADMO. So the common reasoning is that the people affected by the floods have all been taken in by relatives that's why the UN team didn't find them housed together in refugee camps as internally displaced people.

Remember way back in 1983 when over a million Ghanaians were deported from Nigeria? The then EEC ( the EU now) sent delegations to Ghana to assess how disruptive that was going to be on our then very fragile economy and to seek ways to mobilise humanitarian assistance. After a few days of such returnees being housed in the Trade Fair Site in Accra, all of them went "home" perhaps to a hero's welcome. At least my cousin was welcomed that way. They were smoothly absorbed back into our society without any major disruptions. This would have caused strains and stress in any Western society.

Our communal spirit and strong sense of belonging helped to absorb over a million people back into the society without any major disruption but that doesn't mean we didn't have a disaster on our hands with that deportation. A similar thing is happening now in Northern Ghana. But it is up to the government, the NADMO, and the government’s team to make that convincing argument and draw the parellels in this case to the UN team in order to convince them. I don't know the composition of the UN team but I feel they were using their Eurocentric standards to judge us on this and the government should have been more convincing. Their failure to do this means they were not up to the task Instead the leader of the government's team was just displaying his ignorance about negotiations and tenets of modern governance by telling the UN team to believe the "official explanation" by the government. It is only in our anemic democracy that whatever the government says is accepted without question. This won't cut it in the West and they control the UN whether you like it or not.

Ben Ofosu-Appiah Tokyo, JAPAN.
The author is a senior political and social analyst and policy strategy advisor based in Tokyo, Japan. He has written extensively on African and Third World issues. He welcomes your comments.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Ofosu-Appiah, Ben