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Liberalization or Liberation? Economic Reform and the Paradox of Conflict in Ghana's Northern Region

Working papers

This paper, prepared for the international workshop "Understanding and addressing spatial poverty traps: an international workshop",  considers the linkages between spatial dimensions of poverty and conflict. It is focused on a specific case study of the 1994 Guinea Fowl War in the violence - prone Northern region of Ghana. This war pitted the dominant cephalous states of the region against the autochthonous acephalous ‘tribes’.

The Northern region is resource deprived and poor, both in absolute and relative terms. It lacks Ghana’s traditional export crops and both colonial and post-colonial governments had little interest in the development of the Northern region. As a result, it has historically been dominated by subsistence agriculture and has lagged behind southern regions in infrastructural amenities. Because of these economic characteristics, the region as a whole is generally understood to have gained little from the process of economic liberalization. Over the last decade as a whole, poverty reduction was extremely modest in the Savannah (Ghana’s North); and in the rural parts of the Savannah where poverty reduction has occurred, it has mostly affected those close to the poverty line.

The paper argues that spatial poverty characteristics have contributed to conflict in a number of ways. One mechanism is familiar in the economic analysis of conflict. Given limited economic opportunities in the region, there is a low opportunity cost to participation in violence by aggressive agents. Other important contributions of the North’s spatial position include the limited infrastructural presence of central authority in this resource deprived region. This leads to a higher reliance on prejudicial ‘traditional’ authorities in local administration and the allocation of values. In this context there is a great deal of exploitation of minorities and civic institutions do not safeguard the rights of citizens.

However, the paper contradicts the conventional wisdom that this war -the most violent in Ghana’s history - was caused by adjustment induced hardship and poverty. Data indicates that a liberal growth trajectory under reform in the 1980s and early 1990s, prior to the conflict, acted to enhance national integration and reduce poverty in the North. Ironically, that liberal growth episode which was based on a large increase in the output of starchy tubers, also contributed to conflict. It did so by generating dissonance in the North’s ranked ethnic system by providing a vehicle of accumulation to subordinate acephalous tribes. It has also generated conflict over land tenure arrangements in the context of the increasing commercial value of land. I argue, therefore, that the war resulted at least in part from a potential escape from a poverty trap.

There are four important implications that result from my argument :

  1. Examinations of spatial poverty trends in Ghana will have to try to distinguish between policy reform impacts and the direct impact of the conflict. Except very superficially, this issue has not been a focus of this paper and will require further research. Dramatic reversals in the fortunes of the region pre and post 1994 are likely impossible to explain from policy factors alone.
  2. The ‘space’ in spatial poverty trap needs to be unpackaged and disaggregated. Distinct ethnic groups within a given area negotiate and adapt to circumstances in distinct institutionally derived ways.
  3. The escape from poverty traps is likely to be non linear and conflict laden. ‘Development’ changes relative factor endowments in regions and will contribute to resource conflicts.
  4. In Ghana the inability to address the grievances of minority tribes has as much to do with the weakness and limited autonomisation of the political centre as it does with circumstances in the Northern region itself. The analysis raises questions about whether attempts to address the social vulnerability associated with spatial poverty should focus on the marginal affected area, or the central state.
Jay Oelbaum