Former Ghanaian politician conducts field research in his “own backyard”

March 22, 2011.  

March 2011. Interview with S. Nana Ato Arthur, a ZEF junior researcher from Ghana in ZEF’s Department of Political and Cultural Change. He is conducting his doctoral research on “Decentralization and political accountability of local government in Ghana – A case study of the Komenda-Edina-Eguafo-Abrem (KEEA) Municipality”.


Local governance - How did you get interested in the issue?


From March 2001 to May 2005 I was the district chief executive of the KEEA district assembly. As a mayor I was responsible for the overall development of the KEEA District. I was involved in the preparation of the 'Elmina 2015 development strategy', which became a development blueprint. In addition, between 2005 and 2009 I served as the central regional minister and was very active in both local and national politics in Ghana. The practical gaps identified during my work both as a mayor and minister aroused my interest in the topic.


What were your main research questions?


Decentralization is high on the agendas of international donor organizations and development agencies and has become a valued political and economic development policy in most developing countries since the early 1980s. But does it really work out? What are the challenges and impact of decentralized structures for local decision-makers and the population in Ghana? What about accountability -who is accountable to whom? These are the kind of issues I wanted to find out. Of course, I had already had an experience from the angle as a mayor and a regional minister. But this is only one side of the coin and a political one. As a scientist I had the chance to analyze things more thoroughly and from different scientific perspectives.


What methodology did you apply?


In my case study on the KEEA municipality I conducted both qualitative and quantitative empirical research. The instruments I used were semi-structured questionnaires, face-to-face interviews, a survey, focus group discussions and participatory observation. My key informants included academics, traditional rulers, policy makers, political parties, assembly members, mayors and members of parliament.


What is the main outcome of your research so far?


<image style="margin-right: 12px" src="" align="left">The interviews showed that the political elite and the ordinary people have very different views of local problems and the efficiency of the municipal government. For those who are part of the power structures - the elected or appointed representatives - everything seems to work out fine. But from the perspective of the local residents, the KEEA assembly is not effectively accountable. An interviewee aptly put it that as far as the municipal chief executive remains loyal to the president who appointed him he cannot be removed - even if he is not politically accountable to local citizens. Also, the non-partisanship of the local electoral system in Ghana has become unattractive to electorates. For example whilst the 2006 local elections recorded a voter turnout of only 39%, the participation in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2008 was as high as 70%. Again, like most developing countries, accountability mechanisms are very inadequate.


What are the main reasons for this low interest in local politics?


There are a number of factors. Only 70% of the local assembly consists of elected representatives. The remaining 30% of its members are appointed by the national president. Although the framers of the local government law intended to include technocrats in the local assemblies, (like representatives of certain professional branches, etc.) this has turned out to be an illusion. Moreover, the mayor who is the most powerful person of the assembly is appointed by the national president himself. This makes the local governance upwardly accountable to the president and much less downwardly to the local citizens.


Would you say that there is a lack of democratic structures?


I wouldn’t call it a lack of democratic structures. Rather I will call it the unfinished business of devolved decentralization policy in Ghana. Obviously, there is a participatory problem. The assembly members who are elected every four years do not consult the electorates before they attend Assembly sessions, neither do they report back after sessions. There are only few opportunities for principal actors of the KEEA assembly to consult with local citizens. There is also a lack of access to information from the municipal assembly even though local FM radio stations are on the rise. There must be serious attempts to provide accountability mechanisms and also provide incentives to the Assembly members to play their fundamental role of mobilizing local people for a participatory development.


Politics is known as a “men’s territory”. Is it difficult to empower women in Ghana?


In Ghana we must distinguish between the role of women in politics by tradition (as queen mothers for example) and as elected or appointed politicians. In national parliament, district assemblies and municipalities, roughly 10% of the representatives are women. Female politicians are very active. However there is the need to encourage women in all political parties to participate actively in both local and national politics.


How was it to conduct field research as a student in an area where you used to be an active politician?


<image style="margin-left: 12px" src="" align="right">Well, that is what I call the dilemma of a politician and the task of a researcher. Although my former position as a local politician offered me a huge advantage in making appointments for the field research, there was also the other side of the usual “local politics”. I recall a situation where after an interview with a key informant in the KEEA municipal assembly, I had a call afterwards that I had gone to plot against the municipal chief executive. That was a shock to me in my own backyard. Fortunately I was able to explain my intentions and was understood. All in all, politics and research should go together.



Alma van der Veen