What language did Ken Ofori-Atta speak at the IMF/World Bank meeting?

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Language plays a very important part in communication. It is therefore incumbent on a person who communicates to bear in mind that for their targeted audience to understand their message, their (communicator) choice of language was very crucial.

In the last few days, I have watched a short video of Ghana’s Minister of Finance, Ken Ofori-Atta, responding to a question posed to him at the just-ended African Consultative Group Meeting held in Washington DC, in April, this year, as part of the IMF/World Bank Spring meetings. From the video, I saw how both the Africans and others on the panel were nodding in agreement to what he was saying.

The applauds and nodding from the IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, and others on the platform and from the audience which followed Mr Ofori-Atta’s comments were indicative of how well he spoke or dealt with the question posed to him.

But I have also read some comments and read articles about how people, especially some Ghanaians, understood what Ofori-Atta said. There are very scathing commentaries running on social media and in some Ghanaian newspapers about the Finance Minister’s short intervention at that conference. I’ve been concerned about some interpretations given to his comments by these newspapers and some individuals, and I keep asking myself: “in what language did Ken Ofori-Atta speak at the conference, that made some Ghanaians have so much difficulty in understanding, hence their twisted interpretation and commentary?"

As Ghanaians, our leaders can succeed or fail, depending on the kind of support we offer them including moral support. It’s therefore sad that even when a Ghanaian has adequately represented us at international fora and made excellent contributions, we, as usual, bring in our poisonous and dirty politics which makes us put on our jaundiced lenses or deliberately attempt to interpret what one says in languages other than what one spoke. Maybe, it’s part of our usual equalisation game.

At the said meeting, the moderator asked Ofori-Atta: “Your country has a three-year facility with the IMF and of course Ghana was dependent on oil, on cocoa, and on gold, but it has had some troubles there. What are your expectations from the compact process in getting your economy back on track?”

In answering this question, the Finance Minister began with an anecdote: “... I was born out of wedlock, and therefore my mother was supposed to abort and she ran away and I survived. So, I didn’t know my father until I was about 10, 11 and he came back with a PhD and decided that you should move from the village to live with him, which changed the course of my history.

“So, the strength of a woman not to abort was critical. And then the sense of responsibility after not knowing him to decide that you should move from the village and come and stay with him in Legon and begin to even learn how to spell your name as Ken was important. What I have therefore is, from there to Achimota School, one of the best schools in Ghana, then to Columbia, to Yale, to Wall Street, back to Ghana, set up an investment bank and insurance firm, and then joined the political train and I’m Finance Minister. So, my question then, for all of us, is, where do we feel responsible for the unique situation of each country?”

He also made reference to the kind of economy his government inherited with 8.9 deficit, negative primary balance, and 72 per cent debt to GDP ratio, and the efforts his government in only five months has made towards stabilising the economy.

He called for Africa’s partners to treat Africa differently from the way they have treated the continent, and create in the seven countries represented at the conference “a satellite of radiation that will permeate the continent…”

He then touched on what many Africans have been hammering on for decades – fair trade. He cited cocoa and pointed out that selling the raw beans fetches only $5 billion for Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire who jointly supply about 60 per cent of world supply, but processing or adding value fetches $140 billion. This point, to me, raises the critical issue of the West creating a level playing ground where Africans would no more be restricted in what they sell on the international market, and also the willingness of the West to buy Africa’s value-added goods, like processed cocoa, instead of raw materials.

He then asked the deeper question: “Why are we playing in the $5b ‘quadrant’ and not the $140b? It’s this challenge that I really want to put to our friends. That there is a lot more we can do and we ask that this Compact (the G20 Africa Partnership) becomes a game changer that Africa needs and the world needs.”

He forcefully stated that Ghana is a potential pillow of stability of the region (Africa) and therefore there have to be different treatments, adding that “we have the capacity”, and “we have the people”.

In an article by a Josephine Nettey, published on theherald.com on June 21, 2017, the author who fused her discussion of what happened at the Compact meeting with Ofori-Atta’s appearance in Parliament to answer questions on the recent US$2.25 bond, wrote that the Minister “did the unthinkable by trying to court affection and failed to answer the question”.

Another article on therepublicnewsonline.com sourced to a Fiifi Samuels, says “upon being granted audience at that IMF programme, the Finance Minister rather saw it fit to speak to an entirely different topic that was irrelevant and immaterial to the issues about the IMF’s programme with Ghana . . . and “rather than speak the numbers language, the Finance Minister launched into an abortion and illicit sex story about himself that left Ghana looking like a clown-state for having such a man for Finance Minister”, and that “the awkward scenario left Ghana looking like a total joke for a state, for having a Finance Minister who sees it fit to tell abortion stories on the world economic stage.

A former president of the African Development Bank (2005-2015) who was also a former Finance Minister of Rwanda, Dr Donald Kaberuka, when speaking at an international conference on refugees, gave his own experience as a refugee, from which situation he later schooled to became a PhD holder, and held important national and international positions.

Listen to him: “Like many young boys, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be, or even whether there were any options possible for young refugee boys . . . Our family, like that of many Rwandans of my generation, lived for many years in refugee camps. Life was hazardous, and refugees don’t have many choices. Eventually, though, I got into school and university to study economics and ended up in the world of finance ….”

He says he has been privileged in many ways, “firstly, to be called upon to serve my country in a pivotal position of Finance Minister, alongside many other Rwandans who were involved in the important task of national reconstruction, and later on to serve the continent as a whole as head of its premier development bank.”
Many good communicators usually begin their speeches with appropriate anecdotes to press home the impact of their speech. This is exactly what Dr Kaberuka and Mr Ofori-Atta did at their separate international arenas.

One cannot talk about economic growth in Africa without talking about the need for equal level playing ground for people and for nations. How many times haven’t we heard about some women aborting their pregnancies? Even though nobody would preach to women to get pregnant and abort, we would only be hypocrites if we deny that abortions happen in Ghana almost every day. Won’t Ofori-Atta’s story about his mother’s strength which made her not to abort encourage other young women who come to face the same dilemma?

Again, his father’s realisation of his responsibilities as a father, was the life changer, and this must encourage fathers who have abandoned their children for one reason or another to have a second think and take up their responsibilities for their children.

We have heard many times about the so-called ‘American Dream’, which simply means America provides the space for all to progress. Yes, if that was the case, then Ken Ofori-Atta’s journey from the village to Achimota School, to Columbia University, to Yale and Wall Street and back to Ghana to establish vibrant and successful financial institutions, is an encouragement to our children and younger generations that they can equally make it in life if given the opportunities like he was given.

I definitely think Ken Ofori-Atta spoke a very clear, audible and encouraging language, by telling the West to remove barriers to African states on the world market and also treat Africa differently from the master-servant treatment we have been subjected to over the centuries.

Except anybody was listening to him in a different language, and therefore did not understand what he said at the conference, then I would say, what the Finance Minister said never disgraced Ghana, but rather addressed a crucial issue facing Ghana and Africa.