On Markets, Development and Public Space
Ghana — Student VolunteeringUniterra
A point from a lecture this summer really struck me: That the poorest and most marginalized were often the most dependent on markets. I immediately felt silly. Of course the people who were forgotten and ignored by governments and international aid, and sometimes their own people, had to rely on markets to access goods and services. This was reiterated again during our training, underscoring WUSC’s commitment to working within and towards inclusive markets, defined by the UNDP as, “markets that extend choices and opportunities to the poor (and other excluded groups) as producers, consumers and wage earners”. However, working in Ghana has taught me the importance of markets for the poor and marginalized is even greater than I could have conceptualized.
Upon arriving in Tamale, I noticed the lack of public space. Sure, there was the town market, the car wash where young men gathered to clean their taxis. But where were the parks, the libraries, the community centres? In place of those public spaces were seemingly endless small businesses. Rows of shops lining the road, selling moto tires in shiny plastic, phone credit, piles of colourful plastic buckets. Women sitting on the pavement, bowls of tomatoes or fish at their feet, calling out their prices. And all around these bustling small enterprises, people gathered to talk, to laugh, to crowd around TVs with grainy images. The market, I thought, is the public space.
I am working with URBANET, a local NGO that works to increase food and livelihood security in northern Ghana, addressing issues such landlessness, climate change, and environmental sustainability. Since starting my mandate, I’ve been documenting their work and updating their website. I accompanied URBANET to their demonstration field events, which showcased the effects of inputs, such as fertilizer, and different varieties of soybeans, groundnuts and cowpeas.
At one of the events, a young farmer, Mr. Adam Fusseini, spoke about the impact of the project. This, for me, truly emphasized the importance inclusive markets as a driver of development. He explained that, through URBANET’s program, his youth group was connected with Heritage Seed Company, and they now worked as seed producers. Prior to his involvement with URBANET, it was difficult to sell their harvests, because they didn’t know how to navigate the local market. The group also benefitted from the training and inputs supplied through the program: His groundnut yield increased from 5 bags per acre, unshelled, to between 8 and 10 bags depending on weeding. He used the extra income from the seed production to pay his school fees. Others, he explained, were able to build houses or add roofs to their buildings.
It’s easy to fall into idealistic thinking, to eschew markets as evil or corrupt, especially when privileged to have had access to public spaces and goods. However, this is not a realistic or sustainable outlook for development. If public space and goods are scarce, how can they be effectively and sustainably delivered to the most marginalized? But market structures are abundant. So, then, the challenge is to make them fair and inclusive. And sometimes that looks like connecting a young and capable producer to a fair buyer.