Unemployment and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Ghana

To address high unemployment in Ghana, many entrepreneurs and “labor experts” present volunteerism as the way out of poverty and unemployment.

Workers at thermal power station in Takoradi, Ghana. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst, World Bank)

Since the early 2000s, more and more graduates in Ghana can’t find work. That’s according to the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research at the University of Ghana. As of 2017 only 10% of graduates in Ghana secured jobs after their first year of completing school. Ghanaian youth disproportionately face unemployment  compared to adults, according to the International Labour Organization). The ILO report reveals that “the problem of rising unemployment, underemployment and informalization of employment is the low attention paid to employment creation in the national development discourse.” Increasingly, Ghanaian graduates who are unable to find employment migrate to other countries to look for jobs.

Most unemployed graduates are organized in the Unemployed Graduates Association of Ghana. It has since changed its name to the Association of Graduates in Skills Development. The association has increasingly been ridiculed by citizens and public officials for what they believe is a paradoxical situation since graduates of tertiary institutions are supposed to be equipped with employable skills to navigate the increasingly capitalist Ghanaian economy.

The criticism of unemployed graduates has taken a neoliberalist turn where they are framed as lazy, not interested in entrepreneurship and self-help. On several occasions, the humanities and liberal arts have been blamed for the unemployability of graduates since many believe that they do not present graduates with “practical” job skills.  The President of the Heritage Christian College, Dr. Samuel Twumasi-Ankrah, believes that entrepreneurship is the ultimate solution to Ghana’s unemployment problem. According to him, the college is “taking real and concrete steps to train ethical entrepreneurs who will create jobs to stem the tide of graduate unemployment in our dear continent of Africa.”

Poverty and unemployment discourses generally do not consider Ghana’s increasingly capitalist economic system where employees are disposable, the income inequality gap is quickly widening, and young and poor people are generally blamed for their inability to secure jobs.

This neoliberalist approach to (un)employment discourse has been quickly reinscribed in the public sphere through media framing of news around unemployment, the mainstreaming of individualism and the prosperity gospel from evangelical churches, public officials constantly blaming poverty and unemployment on citizens among others. This discursive shift does not take cognizance of the ways in which an individual’s various identities; class, ethnicity, education, sexuality, ability, religion etc. collectively shape their lived experience. This neoliberalist discourse favors the problematic notion that “poor people are poor because they are lazy” instead of examining systemic conditions that keep them in the cycle of poverty.

Just like generational wealth which has been conveniently attributed to “God’s grace and blessings” has sustained much of Ghana’s upper/middle class for generations, being born into poverty is an impossible cycle to break out of. People born into generational wealth have cultural capital and can use these connections to leverage harsh socio-economic conditions, and or climb higher on the economic ladder. Poor people almost always have no way of breaking out of the cycle. It is interesting, however, that poor people who “break out” of the cycle of poverty are held up as tokens or examples of the possibility of class mobility.

To address Ghana’s unemployment problem, many entrepreneurs and “labor experts” have presented volunteerism as the ticket out of poverty and unemployment. At various job fairs and motivational talk workshops, young people are constantly encouraged to volunteer and chided for their disinterest in volunteering. They are told that volunteering opens doors to steady employment which is ironic because many young people who do their National Service (which some might consider as a form of volunteering for about one year) after tertiary education are usually not retained by the organizations they work for.

What many of these experts fail to consider is that contrary to popular opinion, volunteering is not cheap. For many, volunteering is financial suicide since they will run an economic loss doing unpaid labor. To volunteer, the individual has to have money for basic survival: transportation to and from “work,” and some chop money because man for chop. For their families, their choice to volunteer takes a toll on finances since not only are they not contributing financially to the home, they are taking away the little income the family is making. Therefore, volunteering in the conventional sense is a luxury for many Ghanaians.

Another alternative has been presented to young people through the commodification of motivational speaking. Since Albert and Comfort Ocran’s Legacy & Legacy stylized as a human capital development agency, began national tours to organize job fairs and inspire young people in the early 2000s, motivational speaking has become a hot commodity among Ghanaian youth. Motivational speaking much like organized religion which has taken on capitalist undertones recently, preys on poor unemployed people who are looking for a glimmer of hope. Speakers charge fees to have people hear them speak about their rags to riches stories which are usually embellished to be packaged for sale to poor vulnerable people who don’t even have enough money to give away to begin with. Although motivational speaking may support the emotional and psychological wellbeing of individuals, it very seldom changes their socio-economic status.

Framing of conversations around wealth where wealth acquisition is attributed to divine grace means that poor Ghanaians are constantly demonized by the upper/middle class and blamed for their economic situation. Instead of addressing systemic inequality and keeping leaders accountable, access to facilities and resources that support a decent economic lifestyle are placed squarely on the shoulders of the individual.

It’s time to shift conversations on unemployment towards addressing the failed system that we live in rather than blaming marginalized people for their inability to climb the steep ladder that is mired in corruption and the failure of the state to explore sustainable solutions to poverty and unemployment.

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