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Can Ghana’s youth fight poverty by becoming a political force?

Oxfam and our partners are helping young people to push their elected representatives to improve education, reduce youth unemployment, and help farmers make a decent living. Could this bring ina new era in Ghana’s democracy?

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“I usually have an epiphany when I am performing on stage,” says Elom Adablah, one of Ghana’s most famous recording artists. He had one at an outdoor concert in Accra in 2016, when he held up a one Ghana cedi note. “Look at this, it’s a symbol of who we are, it’s our future, it’s a symbol of our unity,” he said to the young people in the audience.“When you see a one cedi note, remember that we are one Ghana.”

Adablah, 31, and known as “E.L” in Ghana, performed at this concert to promote the PARTICIPATE campaign, which mobilized youth to vote in Ghana’s presidential election.

E.L’s message was simple: “Youth have a responsibility in a democracy to speak out, talk to those in power, to take action, and to lead. And I want youth to know that we need to be unified.”

E.L: State of the Nation Address

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Youth and poverty in Ghana

Ghana is one of the more stable and democratic countries in West Africa. However there is vast inequality in the country of 28 million – people in rural areas are considerably more impoverished than in the cities, and have not benefitted from economic growth from mining and petroleum. Despite employing nearly half of Ghana’s workers, agriculture only makes up about 20 percent of the country’s economy. Unemployment among youth is very high in Ghana –a problem because like so many countries in Africa, most of the population is young. Recent low oil prices have led to a rising public debt in Ghana, further limiting opportunities for youth.

What can improve the prospects for young people in Ghana? Oxfam and partner MUSE (a social engagement media brand) considered the 2016 presidential campaign, and asked how youth could get commitments from candidates to improve education, help small-scale farmers, and decrease youth unemployment. The campaign was non-partisan, and concentrated on the issues – the idea was to encourage young people to get involved and vote.

It was an audacious idea. Young Ghanaians are expected to defer to their elders. “There’s an expression in Ghana: me baaye akye, which means ‘I’ve been here longer,’” says Ruddy Kwakye, CEO of Muse. “It’s something that elders say to young people: Youth should leave things to those in their 60s and 70s… and older. In politics, you have to wait your turn.” This attitude discourages young people, Kwakye says. “They just say ‘even if I talk, they won’t listen, it’s a waste of time.’” Lack of political engagement by youth just makes it easier to ignore their concerns, making poverty more likely for young people.

Youth town hall

A key element of the PARTICIPATE campaign was a series of televised youth town hall meetings that offered young people in the audience an opportunity to speak about their concerns directly to representatives from political parties. This video is one of the broadcasts that included Naana Akosua Hanson as host and E.L as a panel participant.

Watch the video here: #MuseParticipate Millennial Panel TV show

Information is power

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Raising youth voices

PARTICIPATE organized town hall meetings, bringing youth together with candidates and their representatives, to help young people articulate their concerns directly to those seeking their votes. Naana Akosua Hanson, a well-known 27-year-old radio and television presenter, was the host of several of these televised events. “It was great because we don’t have town hall events here, it’s not a thing. But PARTICIPATE gave the youth a voice, to speak directly to their leaders about their problems.”

In addition to town hall meetings, PARTICIPATE organized groups of young business leaders to meet with candidates. The campaign engaged artists like E.L and others who performed in concerts and recorded a campaign song. PARTICIPATE convened youth leaders to document their policy recommendations on training for young entrepreneurs, how the government should spend revenue from mining, and improvements in education that would better prepare graduates for employment.

The campaign communicated much of this in an active social media campaign on Twitter and Facebook during the campaign, and then shared photos of young people displaying an inked pinkie finger on election day, indicating they had cast their ballot. Fear of missing out compelled others to go to the polls, and do the same.

There’s an expression in Ghana: me baaye akye, which means ‘I’ve been here longer.’ It’s something that elders say to young people: Youth should leave things to those in their 60s and 70s… and older. In politics, you have to wait your turn.

Ruddy Kwakye
CEO of Muse Africa, an Oxfam partner

When election day came and went in December of 2016, voter turnout was about the same as previous elections (73 percent), but “there were more young voters registered than ever before,” according to Kwakye.

“The election results were influenced by youth in ways they had not been previously,” says Richard Hato-Kuevor, Oxfam’s program manager in Ghana. He points to one of the first acts by President-elect Nana Dankwa Akufo-Addo: elimination of all fees for attending high school across the country.

“We’re in a new age,” says Frank Gyimah, 26, who works at a PR agency in Accra. He participated in televised panel discussions with candidates during the presidential campaign. “This country has a big future, especially if creative young people can be involved in decisions. Young people are moving to the center of the discussion, and holding politicians responsible.”

Read more stories about the power of people here.

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