Who really governs urban Ghana?

In 2014, 53 percent of Ghana’s population lived in cities, according to the World Bank. Ghana’s rapid urbanization has gone hand-in-hand with the growth of informal settlements. An estimated 39 percent of the urban population lives in slums (World bank, 2015).

In Ghana urban neighbourhoods are “certainly under-resourced and dominated by informal activity and political activity” but to depict Ghana’s cities as being in a state of crisis is “simplistic and “over-dramatic,” write Mohammed Awal and Jeffrey Paller in an article for the Africa Research Institute, published in its Counterpoints series in January this year.

Solutions to “fix” these spaces generally comprise of administrative and technical solutions yet are rarely based on an “informed appraisal of the political dynamics of urban neighbourhoods that define governance in Ghana’s cities” (p:3).

Awal and Paller argue that policymakers and international donors do not focus enough on slums’ local dynamics. A better understanding of the grassroots political economy of slums, they say, is key to the success of any urban strategy or slum upgrading scheme.

Ghana is often depicted as a successful model of multi-party democracy in Africa, with a comprehensive programme of decentralization started in 1988. The apparent success of formal democratic institutions should not however hide the fact that structures of local authority such as patron-client relations still play a major role in local development decisions, and that these practices existed way before multi party politics.

The authors evoke a competitive clientelism that works against a “consistent and universal provision of public services” (p:5). Beyond casting votes, the practice of politics in urban communities, and the way Ghanaians hold their representative accountable, is often ignored by planners and policymakers. The “spiritual vote,” family lineage, and other forms of personal networks actually define the characteristics of the democratic process in urban Ghana, the article highlights.

The authors also show how landlords in slums can act as brokers between politicians and residents. Land tenure issues are at the heart of grassroots political struggle. They cannot therefore be ignored in any slum upgrading programmes, which often stall because of the underlying land tenure issues, or “do not work for the benefit of those slum dwellers who are most in need” (p :16).

Article available at the Africa Research Institute website.

Image: View of Sodom & Gomorrah, SWEGGS, Flickr.


World Bank, “Rising through cities in Ghana”, Apr. 2015.


Publication Type Paper
Publisher African research institute
Author(s) Mohammed Awal and Jeffrey Paller
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