A Sanitary State of Mind - Part 1

By Nana Marfo, Green Seal Marketing Intern

If one were to skim through the English language textbooks that school children like myself read in the late 90’s and early 2000’s in my native country Ghana, it would be hard not to notice the depictions of the local communities. Apart from the familiar local housing structures, they looked small, unsophisticated, spacious, lively, enjoyable and clean. Fast-forward to today in real life and the opposite is true of urban communities.

The issue of poor sanitation in developing countries is well documented. Here, I will enumerate this problem as a state of mind and a result of prevailing bad attitudes people have towards their immediate environment and public space.

For my purposes, this piece will focus on Ghana and its capital city Accra, though it is important to understand that so much of what is said here is applicable to many nations in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the developing world. This perspective will start with a very short profile on Ghana.

Ghana is located on the coast of West Africa, covering over 90,000 square miles, roughly the size of Oregon and a population of 25 million. It is a unitary, presidential republic, comprising 10 administrative regions including some 40 different ethnic groups and with English as the official language. With a nominal GDP of $50 billion and a per capita income of $1900, Ghana is a low income country, though with one of the strongest economies in the region. The capital city, Accra, is home to about 4 million people and the main subject of this blog post. The sanitation situation in Accra is conspicuous. Streets are heavily littered, drainage systems even more so, creating stagnant water, slums thrive in filth, and large public spaces and water bodies have become refuse dumps. All of these have been caused by an attitude of gross disrespect among the general population to the environment. There is the inclination for people to litter indiscriminately without any regard for the consequences. 

In my opinion, there is no need for a psychological study of the causes of such behavior since observation can allow one to draw some obvious conclusions: negligence, widespread cynicism, a lacking sense of ownership, the temptation to defer the problem to the government rather than the public, and above all, a subtle sense of disrespect to the local environment. These factors are all intertwined. It is also important to note that the local (and national) government is seriously ineffective and often tends to compound the very problems it intends to solve. In Accra, unsound, divisive policies such as a new surcharge on residents for waste collection based on economic status, alongside a short-sighted “National Day of Sanitation” by the national government calling for a nationwide clean-up of communities are just a couple of many examples of this point.

The surcharge, while seemingly progressive, is inherently problematic in many ways.
For one, it is not possible to differentiate between the waste generated by the rich and poor, and those charged higher could very well argue that they keep their communities relatively neater than other parts of the city and that has nothing to do with income status. For another, it will be interesting to see how this policy will be enforced since local authorities have no reliable data on the socioeconomic fabric of the metropolis.
The approach to this and many policies is largely informal and thus riddled with embezzlement, inefficiency, mismanagement, extortion and a complete lack of accountability. Indeed, this problem is very akin to that of the current energy crisis plaguing the country, in which consumers have seen their energy bills tripled and quadrupled only to have their power rationed. This is not a result of the laws of demand and supply, this is a classic inefficiency problem.
The National Day of Sanitation is similarly misguided, since the approach had little to do with instilling a permanent sense of cleanliness in the public consciousness. Already, many of the places that were cleaned up have predictably reverted to their previous state.