“In order to bring about a fundamental transformation of our economy …” – Dr. Kwesi Botchwey, Former Minister of Finance, Ghana
“Rethinking Ghana’s Economic Development after 62years of Independence”
Ghana marks its 62nd independence and many still wonder if the number truly reflects its developmental achievements. The questions boggling many include: where have we gone wrong, what did we not get right, how did we get here? Some even go to the extent of comparing our development with countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and the likes. In this all enthralling and thought-provoking edition of the Personality Profile, Team Vaultz meets Dr. Kwesi Botchwey to discuss the most crucial topics on the minds of Ghanaians and find ways of rethinking the country’s economic development after 62years of independence. Dr. Kwesi Botchwey is termed the longest-serving finance minister in Ghana who led a team to restructure the failing economy between 1982 and 1995. The Professor of Practice in Development Economics at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University in this interview offers some suggestions that can help to rebuild the Ghanaian economy after 62year of independence.
TVM: Thirteen years as a finance minister in charge of Ghana’s economy. How did that feel?
Dr. Botchwey: It was very demanding, challenging, and mostly stressful but yet fulfilling. At the end of it all, when I look back, I feel a sense of some gratification
TVM: Ghana is 62 years this year. You have been at the front and have understood how our evolution has been. Give us your understanding of how the Ghanaian economy has felt like, studying through the literature; pre-independence, independence and post-independence.
Dr. Botchwey: Well, the story of Ghana’s economic development, according to some, is a very simple one. The most familiar one is “The grace to grass’ narrative that simply says Ghana was a sort of model colony, a country of tremendous natural resources, a good civil service, and a cushion of reserves of about £200million, equivalent to about three years import cover at independence, a legacy that we somehow squandered.
That is the familiar narrative that then goes with our comparison to the Koreas and the others who have done so much better, to drive home the point.
The real story though is a trifle more complex. To begin with, yes, we were a country of tremendous natural resources at independence and had a very good and committed civil service and all that. But the country was still your typical under-developed country; agriculture was still basically cutlass and hoe activity and we were very dependent on cocoa production and had very little in the way of an industrial base. Indeed we lacked the skillsets for rapid industrial development.
So, Yes and No. We were not exactly the model colony suggested by some in the literature but were better off than most. In the ’50s when Kwame Nkrumah and the CPP were managing affairs in the transition to independence, the country followed pretty much the path that the colonialists had charted: a stable exchange rate regime and a cautious monetary policy.
And in the first five years of independence, at least, until 1961, when he launched what was, at least by self-assertion, a socialist path characterized by state-led industrialization and development and a whole host of industries, in just about every aspect of the national economy. It’s important to bear in mind that it’s not as if Nkrumah inherited this bountiful legacy and just squandered it.
This was a time when state participation in the economy was more or less the norm for developing countries. So, Nkrumah’s strategy of state-led industrialization was by no means reckless, although it is not to say that the strategy did not meet challenges.
TVM: Was it more tactical than strategic?
Dr. Botchwey: It was more in the implementation of the strategy and in the challenges of governance and good management of the infrastructure and large public investments that were made. The strategy continued till the coup in 1966. President Busia, in his short reign, signaled a change to a more-private sector-driven development and all that; but nothing really happened.
We muddled through our economic development for a long time until the onset of the 80s. By the 80s the economy had become shackled by controls – exchange controls, price controls, trade controls, import licensing, etc. The exchange rate was fixed and stayed at GH¢2.75 to a dollar for a very long time although nobody in his right mind who had dollars would surrender them to the bank voluntarily to exchange at this official rate when on the black market, it sold for GH¢ 10 or GH¢15. Successive governments avoided taking any corrective action to avoid any political upheavals and maintained the peg to the ruin of the economy.
As the exchange rate got hugely overvalued, the export sector including our main export cocoa collapsed, as many cocoa farmers left their cocoa to rot in the bush. They reckoned correctly that the price they got at the official exchange rate for their cocoa barely even covered their cost of production.
Dr. Botchwey: Yes, which is why with Rawlings’ first coming, many students were actually deployed to the countryside to help with the collection and carting of cocoa from the hinterland to the ports. There were widespread shortages of basic commodities and inputs for agriculture and industry. There were shortages of virtually everything. The country was literally on brink of total national disintegration. Even so, nothing really changed till the mid – ’80s.
It was very challenging conjunction. We had suffered three successive years of drought accompanied by bush fires that raged all over the country and caused the loss of a substantial acreage of food and tree crops. Then in the midst of all this, many of our countrymen and women, the relatively better trained and skilled segments of the labor force who had fled to neighboring countries in search of a better life were sent back. Suddenly, we saw a 10% increase in population amid the famine and economic collapse.
That was the setting in which I became, first, the Chairman of what was called the National Economic Review Committee (NERC) and then subsequently, after a few months, was appointed the first PNDC Secretary for Financial and Economic Planning. I must hasten to add that it was a team that was put in place.
I only happened to be the leader of the team but the work was done by the team including Dr. Joe Abbey, one of our leading macroeconomists and a former Minister of Finance himself; the late Dr. Gobind Nankani who was working with the World Bank but would come and help with macro-economic analysis and programming; Mr. Ato Ahwoi; Dr. Assibi Abudu, Dr. Kobinah Erbynn and Nrkrumah’s last Minister of Finance, Mr. Kwesi Amoako Atta. Our task was to war to fashion a radical program of economic and social transformation, open up the economy and just make things work.
TVM: Move it from the controls?
Dr. Botchwey: Well yes. The controls were not working to start with. People would get import licenses at GH¢2.75 to a dollar and would not even bother to import anything. They would just sell them to willing buyers. The reality was that the cedi was grossly overvalued. Even the State Gold Mining Corporation could hardly pay its workers.
Whatever gold they were producing was dwindling because they had no resources to bring in spare parts and auxiliary products. They were coming to the budget for support to pay their workers. Not only were they not paying any tax to the government, but they were also taking from the government. Our studies revealed that it cost the corporation more to produce a dollar’s worth of exports than they received at the prevailing exchange rate.
We eventually freed the exchange rate and made it market-determined. It was not a popular decision. It caused fissures and cracks within the ranks especially of the progressives with some taking the position that this was a neo-liberal solution that the revolution wasn’t meant to pursue.
But we forged ahead and launched a phase and integrated exchange reform plans that combined adjustments in the exchange rate and trade reform, thereby bringing about a gradual and to some extent dramatic recovery in exports and output. Long story! But we did.
TVM: Could that be based on the confidence in the economy?
Dr. Botchwey: Absolutely. Many African countries were suffering the same ills but were deterred by the prospect of social and political opposition to corrective measures, preferring instead to live with stagnation.
We bucked the trend. But the Program of Reconstruction and Development, as we called it, wasn’t just about exchange rate policy and trade reforms. It was also about a massive program of social and economic infrastructure rehabilitation, better expenditure management and discipline, better public expenditure programming generally, improvement in fiscal policy and social welfare, and civil service reforms to improve efficiency and compensation levels. Indeed social welfare spending went up steeply as a percentage of government expenditure over the program period.
We set up all these institutions that we now take for granted: the forex bureaus, stock exchange, among others. Importantly, we instituted wide-ranging reforms of the financial and banking sector which had been badly affected by the general economic crisis and had suffered a major loss of public confidence. We recognized that the crisis facing the banking sector was that they were weighed down by huge non-performing loans of state-owned enterprises (some of it guaranteed by Government) and that of the private sector.
Essentially, we removed from the banks’ portfolios all non- performing loans to state enterprises and the private sector, and either offset or replaced them with Bank of Ghana bonds. The banks were thus able to meet the new Capital adequacy requirements within the stated period. All this was accomplished totally transparently, with the full participation of stakeholders and without the uncertainty, the politics, turbulence, and angst. The non-performing loans were then vested in a newly created Non-Performing Assets Trust (NPART) which was charged with recovering as much as was possible.
TVM: That was quite of bit of work!
Dr. Botchwey: that’s an understatement!
TVM: You did some privatization as well?
Dr. Botchwey: Yes we did. It was an important part of the reform program and perhaps the most difficult from the political economy point of view. We still had a large number of state enterprises about 200 of them, covering mining, transportation, agriculture, services, and the utility sectors. Only a handful of them was operating profitably. The rest mostly had huge financial and structural issues.
We privatized about 50 of them in my time, and those that remained in state ownership were put through reforms aimed at improving performance. They were made to sign performance agreements with government and legal mechanisms were put in place for the improvement of the financial accounting and the institution of a better framework for assuring accountability and operational autonomy.
TVM: These must not have been easy decisions.
Dr. Botchwey: Of course not. For me personally, some of these measures were rather awkward. In fact, even the turn to the IMF, was awkward given my well known criticism, at that time, of the role of the IMF in low income countries.
TVM: I saw an article online that said Kwesi Botchwey, the socialist. So you have obviously taken decisions like these that went against your socio-political thinking?
Dr. Botchwey: Oh Yes. Yes, I took many knocks from both the left and the right. The left from those who preferred that we went the way of the Paris communards during the French revolution and the right from those who thought that even my elan and dress code on the job was somehow incompatible with socialism or what you call my socio-political thinking.
This is not the time and place to respond to these criticisms, there will be such a time and place sometime. Suffice it to say that I take Marxism very seriously to this day, and see it as the foundation of social science. I never forgot that Marxism, required a concrete analysis of the concrete situation when faced with any situation. So when I was confronted with the economic crisis that we faced, with state enterprises that we couldn’t run, with workers taking over state enterprises as they did then notably with GTP and running to the budget for financial and other support, and with the prospects of legal action by previous owners of these factories staring us in the face , and so on, I knew that I couldn’t say that in the name of Marx’s theory, I was simply going to find money that wasn’t there to give to the workers. Then I knew we needed some sustainable policies even if as a transition to whatever else we wanted to do rather than stick to the dogma of an ideology and other people’s idea of ideological purity or…
TVM: Stay true to your principles.
Dr. Botchwey: Yes. I often remind my friends, sometimes to their irritation of Marx’s observation that we make our history not in circumstances that we wish, but in circumstances that we confront. I couldn’t wish into existence a stable and prosperous economy in which money was just plentiful in the budget and we could deploy money any way we wanted. So there was some pragmatism. Anyhow, the result is pretty much what we see today.
TVM: Listening to you, I heard you talk about the exchange rate. Let’s do some ‘juxtaposition’. The exchange rate is still a problem today. So, are you really seeing a difference between the economy then and the economy now?
Dr. Botchwey: I have over the past few years often asked myself whether we are going back to the brink of the crisis of the 80’s. I think not. Yes, we have an exchange rate problem, between December 2018 and February 2019, the exchange lost about 13% of its value against the dollar, compared to a modest appreciation in the same two months period in 2018. The President himself is on record as saying he is not happy with the slide.
The consternation is understandable. When the cedi’s value drops, especially steeply, it does have consequences that are destabilizing for businesses, and consumers alike, it doesn’t make planning easy. It is something that must be moderated and kept within a band that is sustainable.
I see two problems, one is that the public’s perception of the magnitude and causes of the problem is in part a function of the narrative from some policymakers that suggests that the stability of the cedi is just a function of the sheer brilliance and competence of economic managers and that, by sheer dint of such competence the cedi can be somehow immunized from the vagaries of the market.
The other problem is that the public discourse on exchange rate issues is so ridden with partisanship, arrogance and even insult that a principled discussion becomes impossible. The truth is that nobody is omniscient and I mean nobody! Among economists, there’s always room for disagreement. It is not for nothing that George Bernard Shaw the Irish playwright, polemicist, and social activist, famously said that “if all economist were laid end-to-end they’d never reach a conclusion”. We must foster an environment in which principled and dispassionate debate is possible.
TVM: What’s more important? If it is possible to separate them, what should I deal with first? Do I deal with the exchange rate hoping that all other things will work or I need to deal with all other things hoping that it will influence the exchange rate? What do you go for?
Dr. Botchwey: Well the two factors are rather dialectical but if you had to make a choice on pain of death I would have to say the latter. You deal with the factors affecting a particular episode (such as this recent one or the one we had in 2014). First, you identify and deal with the proximate causes such as seasonal and other short term factors and hope that the particular episode subsides.
And then you deal with the longer-term structural issues in the economy that affect foreign exchange demand and supply. Trust me there is no magic bullet. We’ve been here before this latest episode and it won’t be the last.
TVM: There are those who argue that there was a strong call that was made at independence that the Ghanaian was capable of managing his own affairs. 62years down the line. Are we really capable of doing just that; what’s your assessment?
Dr. Botchwey: Yes, we are capable of running our own affairs and we have by and large been managing (and mismanaging) our own affairs. But it is interesting you ask: are we capable?
Of course, we are capable. If you are asking whether we are really in charge of our national economy, do we have ownership of our national development policy, well, that is a bit complex.
As Ghanaians, we own the Ghanaian economy at least nominally. A good chunk of it is owned by those who provide the funding and investments, some of it is also influenced by those who give us support. But not only are we capable, but we can also be the ones who decide what our developing policies shall be. I recall in 2014 when we were going through a similar exchange rate crisis as it is today.
The cedi had lost over 30 percent of its value dropping off about GHc 10billion of our nominal GDP at the time. A number of measures were introduced by the central bank, and some attempts were made to introduce new revenue models and some were condemned as “nuisance taxes” and all that. That was the very activity to deal with the crisis that beset the issue. The government actually then called a forum, The National Forum, that met in Senchi. I had the good fortune to chair the committee that was to look into macroeconomic policy issues.
And it would be interesting for you to know that I chaired that committee and it had people like Sydney Casely-Hayford and Franklin Cudjoe on it and we discussed the matters openly and frankly. The NPP boycotted the forum like a party but there were some NPP delegates there. So we discussed a lot of things. It doesn’t matter what we say, nobody knows everything.
So we had to pull together and a number of good decisions were made. We noted that we had lost policy credibility as a country so inward flows of investments were being affected, donors were more reluctant because we had set ourselves policy targets that were achievable but we had missed them for three successive years. So, the market did not believe whatever we were saying. It was a good forum. Unfortunately, the follow up wasn’t as good as we had hoped and so the body of consensus that had been built somehow got dissipated.
TVM: In 2019, Ghana is expected to exit the IMF program. What are your thoughts on this entry and exit to the program? Are we ready to exit based on the experience you’ve had? And how do we ensure never to get back onto the program anymore?
Dr. Botchwey: Interesting! It is important to understand that we are a sovereign country. Nobody can force us to go to the fund even in crises. It is always our choice.
We go to the fund when we need to. With the International Monetary Fund, all the countries join it to get some funds except for those that the US won’t grant membership. Developed economies, when they get into trouble even go there. The IMF was set up after the Second World War as a body that will help countries in Balance of Payment crisis and provide them support in other to dissuade them from resorting to policies that are destructive for international trade. So, the IMF and the World Bank were set up to provide the multilateral institutions that would provide members with support. And we are members. It is for us to decide if we want to go there or not. We did in 2014 but we’re sovereign. We can leave when we want.
Now if we say, we don’t want to ever go to the Fund, it is fine! That’s our prerogative, provided we pursue policies that give us the credibility that the market wants. This program was supposed to have ended in 2017 but was extended for another year. Now it is coming to an end. Should we decide that when the program comes to an end we won’t renew it, fine! It is all very fine provided that, as a country, we have internalized the discipline of living within our means, subjecting ourselves to fiscal discipline that we need in order not to create the conditions that will take us back to the fund or make the return to the fund necessary.
Secondly, people talk as if the IMF rains conditions on our heads; insist we keep a low deficit, insist our other macroeconomic indicators are fine– low inflation, growth, employment, generating growth and above all, keep our fiscal situation stable.
People forget that even without the IMF, the market today will subject every country pretty much the same conditions. If we choose to go to the bond market, they will look at our budget, look at our ability to pay back the debt, etc. In 2014, we went to the Fund because we wanted policy credibility plus resources of about US$1billion, plus a crowding-in of private sector investments and donor assistance.
TVM: So, it’s not even an issue of going to the IMF but an issue of discipline?
Dr. Botchwey: Yes, it’s an issue of discipline which the market will compel you to demonstrate anyway with or without the Fund. We should not be under any illusion that when the fund is not here we can do whatever we want. Sure we can but we shall bear the consequences.
TVM: And five years down the line we will be back.
Dr. Botchwey: Yes. Quite possibly. If you look at our history, I have heard some narrative that suggests that one party, is a better manager of the economy than the other. The facts don’t bear out that kind of narrative. If you look at our history well, you’ll find that we spend years messing up, especially election time, then we wake up to the realization that there is a problem and so we spend three years sorting ourselves out till another election comes then we mess up, then we come back, do fiscal consolidation, get things back on track and sail through until elections come again and we overspend again.
This has been happening quite consistently in our multi-party experience more or less and that has to stop. In order to bring about a fundamental transformation of our economy and make a real dent in poverty which still afflicts our people, we need to be growing at about 8-9% per annum for a generation. One of my biggest worries in my moments of sober reflection is that, at the rate we are going, even when we think we are doing better compared to previous regimes, I fear that very little is going to change and our children in 30yrs will be facing some of these same issues, there wouldn’t have been a really fundamental change in their condition.
TVM: So from your estimation, we must be doing around upwards of 8% consistently for almost about a generation?
Dr. Botchwey: Yes, consistently for about a generation. We need to have policy continuity in its essentials. China has done something no other country in history has done. They have brought over 700 million people out of poverty. I mean, out of poverty! Their lives have changed fundamentally just in a generation. We need to be looking at what China has done a lot more carefully.
TVM: Once we cut ourselves off the IMF, would there be an impact on the already stretched foreign exchange?
Dr. Botchwey: It depends. If we wean ourselves off the Fund and demonstrate that even without the external restraints that come with an IMF program we will continue to act responsibly in the management of our economy (and politics), that we’ve internalized the discipline of prudent fiscal policy and demonstrate this for an extended period straddling election cycles and political transitions, we will be fine.
But let not get ahead of ourselves. Even developed countries do have recourse to IMF supported programs, even if infrequently. The so-called East Asian Tigers, among them Thailand, Indonesia, and Korea with which Ghana has been compared frequently, have had recourse to IMF supported programs in billions when they needed to, During its boom years, Korea made huge investments mainly financed by external short – term borrowing, and when the economy and export growth especially slowed, these large loans caused huge problems for enterprises, in unutilized capacity low profits and severe cash flow difficulties for enterprises and for banks, large non-performing loans.
Korea actually nationalized KIA after Banks refused to lend it money and when traditional policy responses failed, Korea turned to the IMF as the best and perhaps in the circumstances only feasible option. But sure we can say goodbye to the Fund and survive, even thrive. Let’s just remember it’s not like eating a piece of cake.
TVM: Control our borrowing, drive up our revenues and spend wisely?
Dr. Botchwey: Yes. But you see, all these require something that a lot of politicians do not like to hear. We need both fiscal space and political space. When an incumbent government is in the trenches and must take actions and policy decisions, that is hugely difficult and unpopular and challenging, it needs to create some sort of national consensus, across parties so that it doesn’t look over its shoulders and worry about other parties taking political advantage. There must be a sufficiently large body of national consensus around the basic direction of our national economy. We must live within our means, borrow prudently making sure that the monies we borrow don’t cost more than they should and that they’re invested prudently.
Above all, we can’t transform this economy in just a few years, nobody can. It is not a matter of genius. Nobody on this earth has the kind of genius that can bring an end to poverty and youth unemployment in two years. If that were possible, why would any country be poor? Find the geniuses, bring them to a country, give them two years and, bingo! Nobody can do that. It can’t be done.
TVM: “Ghana: A country of wealth, a people of poverty.” Ghana is a resource-rich country yet with people who are embedded in poverty. ‘Good Growth and Governance in Africa: Rethinking Developmental strategies’ is a book you co-authored with noble prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. In your view, what accounts for this situation in the case of Ghana? What are we missing?
Dr. Botchwey: Yes, we are a country of enormous wealth. We often tell ourselves Ghana is a rich country. We need to qualify that. We are a potentially rich country. The natural resources we have to make us only potentially rich. The most frustrating thing for any economist or manager of the economy is to see the macroeconomic indicators moving in the right direction and still hear people saying, as they are doing now, and rightly, that times are hard, that they can’t see the improvements in their pockets.
It is on one hand a commentary on the fact that we don’t have all the answers to many of the challenges we face in our development- which is why a dose of humility is needed among the protagonists in this enterprise called ‘development’ and what it will take to assure the long – term welfare of our growing population and their basic quest for food, decent housing, and leisure – that we’re not growing at a high enough level, and that the growth is not employment generating.
TVM: So you’re saying the growth must lead to a good employment generation
Dr. Botchwey: It must be transformational and employment generating and no transformation can ever take place except on a long term basis; it takes sustained effort and continuity in development policy.
TVM: There are some who’ve argued that government in government out, there seems to be some degree of political biasism when you talk about corruption. So the left is corrupt when the right is in power and then the right is corrupt when the left is in power and we don’t seem to be addressing it. What is your take on this and how can we attempt to deal with it?
Dr. Botchwey: Ah Biasism! I like that. I’ll take that to my lexicon of evolving Ghanaian inventions! The greatest harm that we can do to our country is to jeopardize or compromise the integrity, competence, and independence of the key institutions for our democracy including those that are charged with fighting corruption.
When we compromise them by politicizing them, what happens is, we reduce the fight against corruption to just jailing people, especially political opponents through an interesting law on our statute books, a law of ‘strict liability’, more or less, tantalizingly called ‘causing financial loss’ in our popular parlance, which has become a ready-made hatchet that incumbent governments can and often do wield to prosecute their political agendas. That is not fighting corruption. The discourse on corruption is rather confusing.
Apart from the incidence of what you call political biasism which is unfortunate because it undermines the credibility of the fight against corruption and makes the populace cynical – they are not fooled – except perhaps the growing legion of so-called ‘party communicators’ who are fired by blind loyalty and other activists often masquerading as journalists!
We have institutions that are meant to address corruption including the Public Procurement Authority and statutes – the Public Procurement Act, Act 663 of 2003 and its subsequent amendments, that are meant to provide the legal framework for preventing and punishing corruption in public procurement where we know value for money considerations in large public investments can be compromised to the detriment of the nation.
The integrity of this legal framework so that it doesn’t get used selectively and worse, as a hatchet for intimidating political opposition, but to prevent, curtail and sanction violations, especially egregious violations that hurt the common good. It is as simple as that. And the fight and public discourse on corruption must also be broadened to include ‘petty corruption’ which is what the average person struggling to make a living confronts daily in getting paid public officials to do their duty, whether it be issuing driving licenses, or passports or clearing goods at the ports or registering title to land. Ever tried to register title to land? It is a monumental scandal!
TVM: To smoothen the process?
Dr. Botchwey: Yes ‘smoothening the process “is a convenient euphemism that soothes our senses and curbs our indignation. It must be abandoned in favor of the naked truth; it is bribery! So yes corruption is still a big issue, I think that we are making some progress in dealing with it but I fear there’s too much of what you call political biasism in the fight against corruption.
TVM: Let’s talk about Ghana beyond 62years. There are those who are pushing for us to change the dialogue or the discourse in the country, pushing for much more intellectual based discussion, changing the narrative. How can we see this pan out? How do we ensure that we are changing the dragging regressive politics of needles comparison? How do we change the entire narrative to make us more progressive?
Dr. Botchwey: it is a responsibility for all of us i.e. shared responsibility for all of us including the likes of you.
Dr. Botchwey: Civil society. Unfortunately, journalists are just worsening the process. We’ve made tremendous progress in our journalism but it is often mired in the same political biasism even in reporting and conducting a public debate.
TVM: How can we capitalize on the late start advantage to develop as a country? How do we get around that? What is the concept of the late start advantage?
Dr. Botchwey: It’s an interesting question. We live in a globalized world. Enterprises are able to source and locate anywhere they have the best advantages but unfortunately it is a trend that is under threat now, with the eerie re-emergence of the same tensions that marked the inter-war years and US-led bilateralism which has put the world economy in rather uncharted waters, unfortunately. Nevertheless, we need to position ourselves to take advantage of globalization. We need to decide as a nation where our comparative advantage really lies in.
If we are going to leapfrog- and we can, we must train our workforce and equip them with the skill sets required in today’s world. Unfortunately, this is not quite happening. Although, we have a proliferation of universities now, there has been relatively little diversification in course offerings. If you ask any young man or woman who has finished secondary school and is looking to enter the University for a degree, what career they have in mind, the most likely response will be HR or Marketing. We cannot leapfrog unless we harness the force of technology and technical innovation.
TVM: We need good skill sets?
Dr. Botchwey: Yes. To take advantage of globalization, we need that. We need planning as I mentioned earlier. Just study what China has done. Now, they are not just assembling things for the world, they are actually manufacturing things from scratch and are spawning new products. They are going to space. They have just landed on the part of the moon that nobody has gone to before.
They are building their own aircraft carriers but above all, they have internalized those skills and have developed programs for developing even more skills. So in order to be able to take advantage of the late-start advantage, we can’t insulate ourselves from globalization. We must identify what we are good at and how do we prepare ourselves to deliver what we are good at? We sought to address these issues at the NDPC in the 40 Year Plan which is currently under review.
TVM: In your experience, in just some few seconds, if I ask you to pick two or three things that you think the Ghanaian is good at, as a collective, which should be an area of focus that we could dial upon, what would you pick?
Dr. Botchwey: Not easy. Broadly, labor-intensive light manufacturing and agricultural and horticultural products come to mind. Much work was done at the NDPC in the context of the preparation of the 40 Year Plan which is currently under review.
TVM: Many Ghanaians think of you as a man of deep insight. Quickly tell us about your growing up. How was your upbringing like?
Dr. Botchwey: People are very gracious to me, for the most part. I was born in Tamale. My dad was a civil servant and my mother a trader. I didn’t exactly grow up in the same environment with my mum. I went to school mostly in the North: Bawku, Yendi, and Wa. By the time we got back to the south from all these voyages, I could hardly speak any Akan. I mainly communicated in English and was often laughed at by my friends.
I won scholarships and went to PRESEC, St Augustine’s and so on and finally to Legon where I did my first degree. I won a scholarship to Oxford and just a day before I traveled to Oxford, I got admission also to Yale with a fatter scholarship so I ended up going to Yale. But in between, as I was reading my Masters degree something awakened in me a certain revolutionary fervor, a compelling yearning for social activism to do something about what I saw as pervasive injustice especially against the African person.
TVM: That’s where the passion started from?
Dr. Botchwey: It started from my days in America and saw its maturation in my days at the University of Dar es Salaam in Nyerere’s Tanzania, and my association with a cluster of progressive academics including Walter Rodney of ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ fame, Clive Thomas, John Saul, Reginald Green, Forster Carter, Dan Nabudere, Mahmoud Mamdani, Horace Campbell, among others.
TVM: What is your fondest childhood memory?
Dr. Botchwey: Ah! you know? It had to be childhood liking for ‘boflot’, later to be replaced by koose and kurikuri! Going to school in Bawku, we would walk past loads of it by the roadside and far enough from the adjacent houses. We would slip one or two into our pockets and then call someone to come and sell us whatever our daily stipends (few pennies) could buy, and I’ll tell myself, when I grew up, I would try to make lots of money so that I could eat all the boflot I wanted! Unknown to me, the lady boflot maker had noticed our pranks and reported me to doting mother who not only spared me the cane, but made boflot a steady part of my breakfast! To this day my food preferences if I can get them are Northern delicacies. I’ve long given up my craving for artery clogging Fante doughnuts!
TVM: Your journey from the young man who liked ‘boflot’, to a statesman and political economist today, was it born out of reading? Or was there a mentor?
Dr. Botchwey: Yes, it was born out of reading. At Yale, if you wanted to do a master’s degree in Law, you needed more than a passing acquaintance with political economy especially in the areas that I was interested in– Corporate Law Finance. But I acquired my revolutionary fervor, from reading Marx as we all did then.
TVM: So the Marxism was what drove you as a people’s person?
Dr. Botchwey: Absolutely!
TVM: Interesting. What struck you most about Karl Marx?
Dr. Botchwey: Well, his passion for fighting injustice in the workplace for the downtrodden. It was right in the 19th century when injustice was at its worst; with child labor and dreadful working conditions in the mines, coal mines, and his determination to mobilize working people to participate in the development and the fruits of development to change their lives. That really informed me and kept me reading mostly radical socialist literature.
TVM: In 1982, just fast forwarding to when President Jerry John Rawlings reached out to you to assist in stabilizing the Ghanaian economy. It is on record that you achieved some very strong results out there. What mechanisms do you remember deploying with your team to get the change that we saw?
Dr. Botchwey: Well, the most difficult one was to adjust the exchange rate. Let’s not forget, everybody who had tried it was overthrown. So we had to do it in mechanisms and language that people understood.
TVM: If you were in office today, and see what we’re seeing now in terms of cedi depreciation, the rise in public debt etc., would you have done the same? Or the antidote, for now, is different?
Dr. Botchwey: The situation now is different because we have a market determined the exchange rate. We just need to make sure that our fiscal policies, our matching policies are sound so that we can have a stable macroeconomic environment.
TVM: You did talk about having a fiscal space but also having the political space. There are those who argue that you stormed out of the NDC in 1995 after you were overruled, so to speak on the plan for a spending splurge to win the 1996 election. Does that fall part of the political space that you were looking for? And what’s your take first on this allegation?
Dr. Botchwey: Idle speculation. Fake news, in today’s parlance.
TVM: There are those who argue that the Party needed you most during that period.
Dr. Botchwey: I didn’t think so. I had been in office for 13 years; I thought it was time to move on and return to the relative quietude and intellectual rigor of academic work.
TVM: There is a quote attributed to you in the political window and it goes like this “If elected flagbearer, I would elaborate a clear plan to build on Ghana’s potential to take advantage of the global economy and the network of globally influential individuals and organization I have worked with to the benefit of the party and the people”. How could this have translated into the Ghana we wanted?
Dr. Botchwey: I had the good fortune of network on International Development when I was at Harvard and at the Fletcher School. I worked on the Millennium Development Goals, the UNDP’s Human Development Report (HDR) and was a member of the UN Committee on Development Policy. So I had a good network and I was saying then when I was seeking flagbearership of the Party that I would reach out to people I knew in this network to help in fashioning the right policies if I were elected. In the event, I didn’t win.
TVM: There are those who say a strong team is important and I also believe that strong leadership is important. So if you were the president, tell me two or three things that you will you do differently?
Dr. Botchwey: I am what you will call a yesterday’s man. My career reached its peak and has ended. I am humble enough to recognize that. I still have those networks. Hypothetically, if the good Lord should somehow change the laws of biology and return me to my 40s and I got elected as president, I would reach out to all talents and expertise of Ghanaians wherever they may be and whichever party they may belong to. I will end this bout of vengefulness and recrimination. I believe in inclusivity and ethicality in governance and temperance in the public discourse on matters that affect our common good. That is what would move the country forward. I think that is what presidents should do.
TVM: The 2020 flagbearership race of the NDC, did you intend to run for the flag-bearership?
Dr. Botchwey: No. If I did intend to, I would have run
TVM: The last flagbearership election and the aftermath of it, is it a reflection of what you saw going round?
Dr. Botchwey: To some extent, yes.
TVM: What does Kwesi do at his leisure time?
Dr. Botchwey: Reading and Jazz, especially smooth jazz.
TVM: Favorite sport and why?
Dr. Botchwey: Tennis, on clay courts when I can– they are gentler on the knees. Not golf. It is much too laid back for me. I reckon that what I can get from a game of tennis will take me two days of golf or something. My friends think the contrary.
TVM: If I put economic books aside, what others do you read?
Dr. Botchwey: Thrillers, crime, and investigation– that’s series. It kind of tells me the working of the human mind. And cartoons.
TVM: Is it because you are inquisitive?
Dr. Botchwey: It is part but I like to understand how people’s minds work and the kind of mischief they are up to.
TVM: Will I be right in saying that the Dr. Kwesi Botchwey we are seeing today has been largely influenced by the Marxist theory or are there other books that may have influenced you?
Dr. Botchwey: Yes, it has defined my world outlook. A lot of my friends laugh at me when I say that. They tell “You are Marxist but you wear nice clothes and nice things”. But I laugh it off. I have sort of gotten used to these taunts. But of course I have been influenced by philosophy generally, from the Greeks through the Enlightenment to E.O. Wilson’s work on Consilience, and, yes, the wisdom I learnt at my mother’s knee. Enough!
TVM: On Friday, if team Vaultz decides to organize an amazing meal for you, a delicacy, what should it be?
Dr. Botchwey: Interesting. For me, food is basically for restitution and livelihood so I don’t really have any favorite foods. No. That’s not true. I love French cuisine! But I’m a fish man. So if you decide to do any such thing, any old array, anything with fish would be just fine.
TVM: You have betrayed your ‘boflot’?
Dr. Botchwey: Haha. You forget it got displaced long ago by kurikuri and koose long ago!
TVM: If you had the opportunity to rewrite a wrong. What would it be?
Dr. Botchwey: I’m sure I committed some wrongs in my long period of public service. Can’t remember any that stand out like a sore thumb. But there must be some – I have been all too human all my life – I will enthusiastically correct them if I am duly reminded.
TVM: On the Vaultz interview, we try and always have guests speak to their peers. The current minister of finance, Ken Ofori-Atta, what advice would you give him as somebody who sat in his chair before?
Dr. Botchwey: That’s an interesting one. Nothing really comes to mind. But, it will be nice if he could bring us all former finance ministers who are around, together sometime and have a chat and share a bottle of Barolo or Amarone!
TVM: What is your advice to the youth?
Dr. Botchwey: The youth are for me both worry and a tremendous source of inspiration. My heart bleeds when I see throngs of them roaming the streets trying to make a living. As a nation, they represent our greatest asset and yet our greatest challenge. Their increasing anger and desperation should remind us that we are sitting on a time bomb. Providing them with the skills and training to cope and flourish in a fast-changing world, with advances in technology robotry and Artificial Intelligence that portend unimaginable changes human employment opportunities must be our topmost priority.
To the youth and especially to our young graduates, my advice is: don’t put your faith in government or public sector jobs all the time. There will never be enough to go round. Entrepreneurship and self- employment, doing anything or providing any service the market needs or wants can be an alternative. And finally, I do hope that the younger generations don’t repeat the ‘sins’ of the older generation and that they spawn a political culture that is less polarizing and partisan, more unifying. I do hope that we don’t see another generation that is just like us in that regard. It will be a huge tragedy for Ghana.