An Interview with Ambassador Koby Koomson
By Hugh Galford
Pulling Ghana from the laid-back 50's into the wired, fast-paced world of the 21st century is a daunting task by any standard. In a recent interview with Ambassador Koby Koomson, one begins to realize that what would have been considered impossible 10 years ago is now more than probable.
A man on a clearly-defined mission, this elegant and articulate ambassador exudes a positive 'can do' attitude. One gets the sense that if he could, he would literally carry Ghana on his back into the modern world. Appointed to Washington two years ago, but with 25 years of U.S. experience, (he attended Arkansas State University in 1975), the Ambassador sees the value of the strong bond of a 'warm' mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and Ghana. Ever since its independence from British rule in 1961, Ghana has struggled to maintain its own well-being, while keeping the rest of Africa in mind. 'Ghanaians themselves,' the Ambassador said, 'noted back then that Ghanaian independence would be meaningless if the rest of Africa remained colonies.' Since the election of Jerry John Rawlings as President in 1981, this pan-African outlook has been strengthened, especially through the work of First Lady Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings.
The Ambassador is duly proud of his country's achievements, but expressed displeasure at the international media's portrayal of Africa and its nations. One incident in particular stood out in his mind. 'During the recent flooding in Mozambique, it was the African nations who were there first, offering aid and shelter. But look at the news, and what did you see: Americans and Europeans providing aid, and not an African in sight.' Ambassador Koomson terms himself an 'Economic Ambassador.' As such, he sees his main role during his tenure in Washington as fostering continuing good relations between Ghana and the United States. Such relations, he hopes, will lead to further mutually beneficial trade and investment between the two countries.
The 'warmth' of the Ghanaian-US relationship has already borne many fruits. In February, 1999, Ghana signed two agreements with the US, namely the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and the Bilateral Investment Incentive Agreement. In addition, Ghana and the US have this year concluded negotiations for a Bilateral Air Service Agreement and the establishment of a Consultative Committee on Agricultural and Rural Development. Each of these agreements strengthens the already close ties that the two countries share. They have also instilled confidence in corporate America; the US now ranks fourth among sources of investment in Ghana over the past four years. Due to these agreements and the success of the Rawlings' programs and policies, Ghana is the leading recipient of Export-Import Bank loans to sub-Saharan Africa. The Ambassador proudly noted, 'Out of a total of 84 loans and insurance approvals made to the region between October, 1999 and May, 2000, 53— or 63% of the total—were made to Ghana.' Ambassador Koomson attributes some of the stability and economic success to the work of Ghana's First Lady, who has given new impetus to the role of women in Ghanaian society. Ambassador Koomson said that he has 'never met a first lady in the world like Mrs. Rawlings.' After her husband's election, she decided to make a difference in the lives of rural women. This has been accomplished through the establishment of artisanal and agricultural cooperatives and the encouragement of women entrepreneurs.
These projects, Ambassador Koomson pointed out, have led to a number of beneficial, and somewhat surprising, outcomes. The first is the greater confidence of, and role played by, Ghanaian women. Whereas traditional Ghanaian society is largely male-dominated, the projects initiated by Mrs. Rawlings have allowed women a greater degree of financial and social independence. Thanks to her programs, the Ambassador said, 'Many of the women in rural areas are either entrepreneurs or have some form of independent income.' The projects have also produced a larger pool of trained Ghanaians. As individual enterprises have expanded, more workers have been hired and trained. These workers see the benefits of work not only in the income obtained, but in the opportunity to do the same themselves. 'Neighbors working for a woman entrepreneur look at their success and think to themselves, 'I can do this with the basket-weaving business,' ' the Ambassador said. 'They therefore start saving a little each month to start their own business and to become eligible for loans to help them expand once they've started.' Mrs. Rawlings' projects have also garnered international support, both moral and economic. Ambassador Koomson noted that in recent years the World Bank and other international lending agencies have begun 'micro-lending' projects, giving Third-World small businesses loans of $100 to $200. But the Ambassador is adamant in his view that these loans are totally insufficient. If, however, small businesses were given $5,000, they would be allowed to expand to the degree that Mrs. Rawlings would like to see. Such loans are now available, though on a still too-limited basis. Mrs. Rawlings' initiatives have also gained the attention of the international banking and financing world, and she has been asked to spread her ideas and programs to neighboring African nations. Mrs. Rawlings' programs add to Ghana's importance to the economic life of Western and sub-Saharan Africa.
Ghana has a major role in both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Organization of African Unity. Ghana has spoken for Africa in various economic fora, both within and outside the continent. Ambassador Koomson is also a member of the US Export-Import Bank's Advisory Committee on sub-Saharan Africa, and speaks at Ex-Im Bank meetings, urging the Bank to expand its lending and insurance programs in Africa. Within both ECOWAS and the OAS, Ghana has assisted in dispute settlement among member states, aiming to restore peace and provide shelter for refugees. In addition to these external activities, Ghana has taken steps to secure its own internal future. Since 1981, the Ambassador said, the country has had, in the person of President Rawlings, 'a strong, visionary leadership that recognizes the importance of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Mr. Rawlings recognized early that good government led to stability, which in turn led to good government.' During his tenure, Rawlings has instituted pragmatic policies and encouraged a private sector-led economy. The former has led to Ghana's high regard in international circles, while the latter has poised the country on the brink of fiscal security. One example of the strength of Ghana's economy is its stock market. While most people would think of New York, London, or Tokyo as among the world's major stock markets, it would come as a surprise that Ghana's stock market was recently ranked ninth in the world. The Ghanaian stock market has witnessed a return of 28% in recent years, marking it as a major, if little-known, entity. Ambassador Koomson is looking to change this ignorance of his country's stock market. 'In late July or early August of this year, we are going to bring the heads of the companies traded on the Ghanaian stock market to the US.' The aim of the trip is to both encourage Ghanaians to buy US stocks and to get American investors to invest in Ghana and Ghanaian companies. The Ambassador enumerated a number of reasons why Americans and other foreigners should be interested in investing in Ghana. In part, its safety as an investment stems from its political stability and the success of its economic reforms. Other advantages include a commitment to market liberalization, a relatively low inflation rate, a relatively well-developed infrastructure, and a transparent legal system which facilitates the establishment and incorporation of new businesses.
In addition, Ghana has an advanced financial sector, a high level of human capacity, a warm and friendly people and a high degree of personal safety. In addition to these international economic programs, Ghana's historical and natural treasures have much to offer, in terms of tourist dollars and visitors. Numerous forts and castles exist throughout the country, three of which, Cape Coast Castle, Elmina Castle and Fort St. Jago, have been declared World Heritage Sites by the UN. Ghana also boasts the National Park Canopy Walk at Kakum, the only one of its kind in Africa. Its entertainment and recreational facilities, wildlife reserves and good beaches add to its allure for visitors. Perhaps most alluring, however, are Ghana's people and their crafts.
Two weeks prior to this interview, the Embassy hosted an arts and crafts show, bringing several dozen craftsmen and businesses to the US to exhibit their wares. Masks, figurines, chairs and stands in wood, pillows in leather, and vases in stone were chief among the exhibitions. Such crafts play an increasingly important economic role, as Ghana has, since 1983, emphasized the need to diversify its exports. Traditional exports have included gold, cocoa, timber and minerals, but the artwork of Ghana's people — wood, stone, Kente cloth — have begun to make an impact on world markets. In 1983, non-traditional exports accounted for about $1 million; in 1999, that figure had increased to $404 million. Of these figures, handicrafts increased from less than $200,000 to about $7 million in the same period. These handicrafts should not, however, be seen only in terms of their economic utility. More importantly, they contribute to the maintenance of Ghana's deep traditions and culture. As evidenced by the Ambassador's remarks, and by the entrepreneurial energy and creativity of its artisans and craftsmen, Ghana appears poised for economic and political success in Africa.
It is indeed exciting to see a country on the verge of greatness; more people should see it for themselves.