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A woman carries goods on her head past a billboard depicting the likenesses of Ghana's President John Atta Mills and U.S. President Barack Obama in the Ghanaian town of Cape Coast July 9, 2009. (FINBARR O'REILLY/Reuters)
A woman carries goods on her head past a billboard depicting the likenesses of Ghana's President John Atta Mills and U.S. President Barack Obama in the Ghanaian town of Cape Coast July 9, 2009. (FINBARR O'REILLY/Reuters)


A fragile island of stability
in a sea of turbulence Add to ...

Christopher Nettey admits he is exhausted by the heavy workload: the 12-hour days, the 36 classes he has to teach every week, and the nights at his desk marking stacks of homework and preparing lessons.

Enrolment at his school is soaring. As many as 60 children are crowded into each room, with extra desks crammed into the corners, and overburdened teachers not able to give proper attention to their students. "It's very tiring," Mr. Nettey says. "It's a big problem."

The 37-year-old teacher is on the front lines of a huge expansion in Ghana's education system. In a much-praised innovation, Ghana has abolished all primary-school fees and introduced special subsidies and free lunches to lure even the poorest children to school. It fatigues the teachers, but it impresses the rest of the world - including U.S. President Barack Obama, who arrived in Ghana last night for a historic visit.

The presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa by the first African-American president has triggered a surge of interest across the continent this week. But it's just the latest sign of Western fascination with Ghana. Since 1998, three consecutive U.S. presidents have paid visits to Ghana, an extraordinary gesture of praise for a small African country where poverty and unemployment are still widespread.

Ghana has become the darling of the Western donor community. With its bold programs in health and education, its vibrant democracy, its booming economy and its political stability, Ghana is widely touted as a model for other African countries.

Since 2003, when the new education policy was introduced, the number of school children in Ghana has expanded by a remarkable 1.2 million. Ghana now has one of the highest school-enrolment rates in West Africa, with 83 per cent of its children in school.

Child mortality, for children under the age of 5, has dropped by 30 per cent in the past decade. Malnutrition has declined, the health budget is growing, and only 28 per cent of the population is below the official poverty line, compared with 52 per cent in the early 1990s. Ghana is one of the few African countries on track to meet its goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015. With oil resources now being developed, the country even has an ambitious target of becoming a middle-income country by 2020.

"I think its reputation is deserved," says Yasmin Ali Haque, the Ghana country representative of UNICEF, the United Nations children's fund.

"If you look at other countries in the region, Ghana clearly stands out. Other countries can definitely see Ghana as an example of how to really focus on a few key areas and invest money into those areas."

In the field of education alone, Ghana is spending $800-million (U.S.) annually, she noted. And unlike other African countries, Ghana is not heavily dependent on foreign donors. Only one-fifth of its budget is supplied by donors - a relatively low percentage by African standards.

Mr. Obama's visit to Ghana, so early in his presidential term, is the latest sign that the West wants the rest of Africa to emulate Ghana. And the 24 million people of Ghana are quietly proud, knowing that other African countries are envious of their Obama visit.

"It validates us," says Audrey Gadzekpo, a communications professor at the University of Ghana. "It provides us with an incentive to keep improving. When you're being held up as a model, you must try not to screw up."

Ghana's successes, however, are far from complete. There is growing inequality between the rich and the poor. Schools in northern Ghana have much lower enrolment rates than southern schools, and poverty is much higher in the north.

"Stark and rising inequalities have been generated by the growth model that Ghana has pursued in the last decade," says a recent report by Oxfam.

"Millions of men and women living in northern Ghana have been marginalized from the development process. Poverty levels in two of the three regions are higher than they were in 1991-92."

Despite its progress, Ghana is still ranked only 142 of the 179 countries in the UN human-development index, which measures quality of life. Some Ghanaians are so poor that they turn to desperate measures. Just last week, when a Ghana International Airlines plane landed at Gatwick Airport near London, the undercarriage contained the dead body of a man who had apparently risked his life to flee the country. He perished at high altitude.

Ghana has been fortunate that its major export commodities, gold and cocoa, have been immune to the global financial crisis, and have even enjoyed a rising demand. But many people are excluded from this export-driven growth. Inflation is high, and Ghana's currency has plunged in the past year.

"It looked like Ghana had turned the corner, but it's a fragile model," says Yao Graham, co-ordinator of Third World Network-Africa, a research and advocacy group in Ghana. "Many enterprises have collapsed, and there are loads of young people who can't get a job, while the rich are living in compounds with barbed wire and guard dogs."

The massive expansion in Ghana's school system was widely praised by Western donors, but it also provoked fears that it would weaken the quality of education. The influx of poorer children into the schools has prompted many middle-class parents to pull their children out and send them to private schools.

At Mr. Nettey's school, the enrolment surge has brought children as old as 15 to the Grade 1 class. Its class sizes are up to 60 children because no new teachers were hired when the surge began.

"Under normal circumstances, I would say it's too much," says the school's headmistress, Florence Aidoo. "But here, the teachers are doing it joyfully. They know that some people have to make sacrifices for things to move forward."

Mr. Nettey is not exactly joyful. He says he could earn more money if he quit and switched to an IT job, and he might have to do it some day. "I want to stay, but if things continue like this, it will be difficult," he says.

How does he manage to keep working 12-hour days to teach 36 classes? "I have a desire to help the children," he says. "I see them as my little brothers and sisters."

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