Ghana: will anything change with the Senchi Consensus

Sun, 18 May 2014 Source: Ohemeng, Yaw

The much-hyped National Economic Forum is over. The 22-point consensus has been issued. The President has promised to implement them and the Association of Ghana Industries (AGI) has indicated that it will be monitoring the implementation. This should be good news all round; isn’t it? However as much as I hate bursting the bubble of Senchi-enthusiasts, last week will not be any different from next week.

Every Ghanaian is aware of the economic problems confronting the nation. We have in two successive years (i.e. 2012 and 2013) experienced double digit current account and fiscal deficits due to mostly the NDC government’s appetite for unrestrained borrowing and spending. The loans have not been invested in areas that would bring more income to the nation to offset the cost of borrowing. This situation has brought in its trail high and still rising public debt with associated high and still rising debt servicing payments; mounting arrears to contractors and statutory funds; declining economic growth; and faster rate of depreciation in the value of the Cedi. To correct this untenable situation, the government has had to remove subsidies on utilities and petroleum products leading to rising cost of living reflected in the rising rate of inflation. To add insults to injury anything that can be taxed is being taxed and there is even talk of broadening the tax base, whatever that means.

In the midst of these problems, surely a National Economic Forum (I would have preferred a National Crisis Forum) was required. Similar meetings took place in Greece and Italy, when the ruling governments had to implement unpalatable policies as a pre-condition to EU bailouts. Even in the case of Italy, the politicians reached a consensus to step aside for unelected technocrats to take up the reins of government to clean up the mess caused by the same politicians. In Greece’s and Italy’s case, their governments were candid that they had crises on their hands. There was no attempt to deny it or cloak it in subtleties and euphemisms. Can we call what happened at Senchi a national crisis forum? No. If it was, it should have started with absolute candour with government telling Ghanaians how we got here. This admission should also have been stripped of all the usual propaganda which blamed only falling cocoa and gold prices forgetting about the reckless spending of 2012 in the lead up to the general elections. The first issue with the National Economic Forum was the title: “Changing the Narrative – Building a National Consensus for Economic and Social Transformation”. This immediately gave the impression that government was not really concerned with changing how we have hitherto run our economy. They were rather preoccupied with changing the narrative. That narrative had been that the NDC government is incompetent in running the economy and that most of our problems are situated in the brazen corruption that has attended most government initiatives. It was therefore in their interest to change the narrative.

Further the title did not convey the urgency required to deal with the clear and present problems mentioned above. It gave the impression that we had the luxury to leisurely look into the medium and long-term future, whilst the present burns. I am not one to say that looking into the future does not matter but I think dealing with present difficulties should have taken priority over the future. Future policy directions are the ones over which political parties fight each other to sell to us during elections. This is what gives the basis for the electorate to choose between political parties during elections.

In the sense that the forum was not focusing on the immediate future and the clear and present imminent dangers, no serious opposition party should be expected to take part. Solely based on this I side with the NPP for boycotting, even though their reasons were not founded in what I have discussed here. I will not even be surprised if portions of the final communiqué are found in the NDC manifesto for 2016. More importantly, no matter what anybody says, the outcome from the forum is not binding on this government let alone on future ones. There are a lot of reports in the Press that the outcome of the forum will solve Ghana’s economic problems - maybe in the medium to long-term future but not presently. We are told the communiqué itself will be ready in 3-4 weeks. Taking into account the gestation period for policies, it may probably take up to two years for some of the recommendations to be analysed to be converted into policies. Transformative policies are not made on the hoof. They require economic, political and social impact assessments. They require the spelling out of implementation steps and they require monitoring and adjustments. All these stages require competent actors and above all they will require adequate funding. My prediction is that there will be a buzz about the forum for about one month and then it will all die down for the communiqué to gather dust on the shelves of ministers. The second concern with the forum was the fact that the participants were not given base documents, agenda or concept papers in a timely manner. With even two days or so to go this was the situation. It was therefore pre-ordained from the start that the outcome of Senchi was always going to be nothing other than a tall wish list. This is not a reflection on the fine minds that met at Senchi, but rather a reflection on the government organisers who decided to send some of the best economic actors into a forum without making them aware beforehand of the baseline from which they were working.

Economic analysis requires data and facts. Any forum that is not informed by these can only come out with generalisations; hence that is what the outcome became. At the end of the day, we have been served with a rehash of constitutional provisions (that we all know) but which government has consistently ignored; and other statements that have been the subject of public discourse in recent months and weeks.

Methinks that if the government really intended to make inroads into the present economic problems, it would have constituted a committee of economists and other experts to prepare an in-depth report on the present difficulties. Such a report, delivered in a timely manner, would have informed participants’ research into the solutions to the problems.

In the absence of an in-depth report on the causes of the present problems, there was always the risk that the so-called action plans the President had hoped for may not be arrived at in time to allow immediate implementation. In the end, the outcome (at least what is in the public domain) has turned out to be generalisations aimed more at the symptoms of the problems rather than uprooting the causes of the problems.

In view of the above, the Senchi consensus has no potential to bring immediate concrete change. It has, however, succeeded in the short term to change the narrative alright. All throughout last week and especially this weekend, an inordinate amount of time has been spent on discussing the NPP boycott. This is surely changing the narrative. In the coming days, no doubt we will hear more on this from NDC communicators.

Government communicators will also be keen to use the Senchi Consensus to give false hope to Ghanaians. That will also be changing the narrative. So yes the Senchi Consensus will achieve what it sought out to do – to change the narrative for the NDC and the government. As for Ghana, I am afraid the problems will not go away – they will still persist!

Dr Yaw Ohemeng

Columnist: Ohemeng, Yaw