Can Ghana's progress be sustained?

By Simon Barrow
January 5, 2011

The current government in Ghana has declared that it intends to make the West African nation a 'first world' country by 2020. That is clearly fanciful, but recent oil discoveries mean that huge amounts of money will undoubtedly be spent over the next ten years. The question is, what will this mean for the people of Ghana as a whole, and especially for those trying to escape poverty?

In many quarters there is hope and optimism. Post-colonial development here has manifested far more positive features than in many of the surrounding nations. But others are sceptical. Ghana's ruling elite is primarily governed by self-interest, they say. In particular, there is a failure to invest sufficiently and rapidly enough in education, the  engine room of economic, political and social cultural development. This is a young nation and its offspring are hungry to move forward. But that requires the tools of learning.

Meanwhile, what of the role of religion in all this? On the surface, Ghana is a country saturated by Christianity, in particular, but with considerable diversity within and beyond the Christian fold. The  atmosphere of pluralism, in the sense of a healthy mix, is good. As I  observed in a previous blog in this series, relative prosperity, stability and commitment to national progress has tempered the kind of ethnic and religious tensions that can easily arise when other pressures are intense.

Again, not everyone takes the positive view. The boundaries between church and state are porous and ill-defined, some would argue. Religiosity can be fervent, passionate and evangelical, but equally it may be ethically thin and susceptible to the lure of individualism, consumerism and commodification.

Salvation, healing and the promise of blessing seem to be on offer (for sale?) on every street corner. Competition for adherents in clearly intense among the often tiny alternating church brands - many of which focus on specific 'ministries' and target groups, but convey little sense of engagement or continuity with a deeper, richer and  broader Christian heritage of biblical interpretation, community and  discipleship.

"Faith is everywhere, but it doesn't seem to make much difference to the way people live, their morals or outlook," commented one long-term observer I met in Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city. He is especially alarmed at the growth of 'prosperity' teaching in North American influenced Pentecostal and evangelical churches. This proclaims wealth as a sign of divine blessing and poverty as a warning or curse, in a way which is entirely contrary to the prophetic Hebrew tradition and the path established by Jesus as recorded in the gospels.  Bur it nevertheless appeals very strongly to those aspiring to material success against a backdrop of previous denial and underdevelopment (I use the term in the conscious sense of something shaped by the significantly unequal impact of colonisation).

From a comfortable Western perspective, prosperity theology and the reduction of ecclesial worth to "a good worship experience" (as I have heard it put) is easy to decry, of course. The more difficult and  important question concerns how African Christians themselves are responding out of their own resources to the challenges facing their faith at a stage of its development which, it could be argued, is at  once emancipatory and also threatened with fresh forms of captivity in the new colonial environment of rapacious, money-and-communications driven globalisation.

This is one of the concerns I hope to explore as I listen, enquire and learn at a theological college and seminary in Accra next week. It is not difficult to postulate and speculate from the outside, I am more than aware. But the issues are sinuous and complex, both politically and religiously. They require partnership in understanding.

Meanwhile, the worst side of religious confusion, fervour and scapegoating is illustrated by the terrible 'witch killing' cases, the latest of which is highlighted in this UK report and comment:


(Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow has been visiting Ghana over Christmastide 2010 and New Year 2011. This is the fourth in a series of blogs from West Africa)

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