The story is told of a man who traveled from a developing country to a more economically advanced one in search of a better life. Upon arrival, the man was shocked to find that no one managed the local milk shop. Customers would take what they needed from the refrigerator, leave the exact amount of money for their purchase, and be on their way. Neither the milk nor the money was under lock and key. This would never happen in my country, he thought.
The only thing that surprised the man more than the honor system of the unmanned milk dispensary was the price of the product. The milk was cheaper here, even though his country had more milking cows than people—and in turn produced more milk. How could this be? Then it finally hit him. The higher price at home included the additional costs of dishonesty and thievery.
In his country, locks would be purchased for the refrigerator and money box. A worker would be hired to conduct the transactions. Another person or two would be hired as security, in addition to needing expensive CCTV cameras. This is not to mention the added logistical and utility costs from inefficient or unreliable systems. It all adds up, reflected in the price of a single bottle of milk.
What the society of the man’s home country lacked in cultural values, it paid dearly in economic value—in other words, a higher cost of living than a country with a higher standard of living.
The commercial cost of values
What makes a nation great and strong, utltimately, is its people and their values. Societal values determine what people consider good or important, and this informs how they act. If we consider present-day Ghana in this context, we are likely to be disappointed.
Money and material possessions. Greed and selfishness. These values permeate our society. So I thought it wise to speak to the issue of values in terms of commercial costs. My hope is that even those who place money and materialism and personal gain above all else—including the common societal values espoused in our national anthem and pledge—will realize that real values, such as service and integrity, still affect their bottom line. They will make more money with them, than without.
Consider that Warren Buffet, one of the world’s richest men and most successful investors, advises leaders to look for three things when assessing job candidates: intelligence, initiative, and integrity—but to weigh integrity above all else. If a worker lacks the latter trait, Buffet says, “the first two will kill you. Because if you’re going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb.”
It is with near-total trust that we poke an opaque tin of milk and pour out its content without a second thought. We’ve got to trust the regulator, trust the manufacturer, and trust the entire supply chain. A friend and former senior manager in a company that produces perishables once told me that the company would destroy whole batches of product at the slightest hint of compromised quality, because the negative cost of their brand being brought into disrepute would be much greater in the long run than the temporary loss of the thousands of dollars flushed down the drain by an honest act.
Values at the core of a nation
Little drops of values at the individual, family, organization, and sector levels of a society eventually coalesce to make a mighty nation. This is how I have long thought of Ghana. As a mighty nation, rich in social and cultural values to emulate.
I grew up in the early 1990s, when neighboring countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone were decimated by war. Hordes of refugees made their way into Ghana. As a World Vision Youth Ambassador, I toured refugee sites in the country with donors, and the tentative nature of life in tents made me tear up. I have always been grateful to God that Ghana in my life has been an island of peace in a sea of strife.
But bombs and bullets are not the only way to destroy a country. Rather than exploding in external violence, a society can implode through internal valuelessness. I fear Ghana is on this path. I see it all around. We have swung from one extreme to another in a few generations. My grandfather cared little about money or material possessions. He was not alone. How often can we say such things now?
Too often, money and materialism seem to the motivation for the world around us, even at the peril of our lives and at the cost of future generations. Look no further than the dastardly acts of inordinate illegal mining (galamsey), stinky corruption in politics and public service, brazen cheating in exams, rampant illegal practices which combine modern internet-based fraud with African traditionalist rituals (sakawa), food sellers using dirty (waste) water to cook, changing expiry dates on expired medicine or outrightly selling fake medicine… need I go on?
Building the Ghana we want, rooted in values that matter
I worry that in our hurry to catch up with the rest of the industrialized world, we are focusing on infrastructure, industry, and education without a values-based foundation. For instance, STEM education is being touted as the panacea for the challenges we face. But what use is STEM without roots? STEM or any other body of knowledge must grow from a deeply rooted network of shared social and cultural values and norms. Otherwise, patients needlessly die, shoddy infrastructure inadvertently collapses, common funds are looted, and justice is denied.
Ghana is at a crossroads, not just economically, but also culturally. There is a commercial cost to values that must be recognized and incorporated into the policies needed to set Ghana on a more prosperous economic course. Thankfully, influential Ghanaians are talking about it.
Earlier this year, the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), which is based in Accra and was founded by Dr. K.Y. Amoako, a Ghanaian, organized a retreat at at the Peduase Valley Resort for more than 50 people representing various civic and political stakeholder groups and organizations in Ghana. The topic of conversation was a new initiative that is set to launch officially in the coming days: the Compact for Ghana’s Political and Economic Transformation.
A roadmap for a stronger democracy and lasting economic prosperity, the Compact is a hopeful approach because it is rooted in strengthening our common values. I attended the Peduase Valley retreat, and values featured heavily in the discussion. It was stressed that the quest for Ghana’s economic and political transformation is meaningless unless it is underpinned by a radical shift in our mindset and values.
Indeed, the discussion focused on identifying values we can glean from the national anthem, the pledge, and the lyrics of “Yɛn Ara Asaase Ni,” written almost a century ago by Dr. Ephraim Amu, one of the fathers of our nation. From the conversation, values such as honesty, selflessness, hard work, and loyalty stood out.
Such discussions must continue in Ghana. Particularly, the all-binding value of integrity needs to be ingrained in every stratum and segment of our national life if we are to realize a greater Ghana, rooted in values that matter rather than tarnished by ones that do not.
Although less dramatic, a definite way to destroy Ghana without bombs or bullets is by eroding the very values that birthed the nation, slowly but surely. “Whether or not this nation prospers,” goes the resounding anthem from Dr. Amu, “clearly depends on the character of the citizens of the nation.”
About the author
Dr. Yaw Perbi has practiced medicine in both his home country, Ghana, and with the United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire as a U.N. peacekeeper. He is the founder and Global CEO of The HuD Group, inspiring holistic emerging leadership development in 25 countries on all continents. He is co-founder of PerbiCubs, an edtech company impacting over 8,000 children in Ghana. Yaw is a Fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative as well as the Aspen Global Leadership Network.