The practice of accountability in Ghana’s poor urban neighborhoods

Professor Jeffrey Paller discusses how democracy and political accountability really works in urban Ghana, emphasizing the importance of daily practices and collective action.

Residents of some of Ghana’s poorest neighborhoods claim, “Housing is a human right.” Residents of some of Ghana’s poorest neighborhoods claim, “Housing is a human right.”

Rapid urbanization is changing the African continent. By 2050, the majority of Africans are expected to live in urban areas, up from 40 percent today. Cities improve access to healthcare and education, while presenting new challenges to sanitation, housing provision, and air quality. Residents come into contact with people from different ethnic, religious, and class groups at work and in their neighborhoods. These daily interactions have the potential to positively change attitudes and build new social contracts, but can also create conflict between diverse types of people competing over limited resources, space, and opportunities.

While the demographic, economic, and cultural shifts are potentially transformative, the pressure on urban land and space is an emerging and real challenge. Many of the future political struggles across the continent will take place in the urban neighborhoods of Africa’s rapidly growing cities. My research examines the impact of urbanization on democracy in Africa, and tries to understand how these political processes shape prospects of sustainable urban development. I’ve conducted most of my field research in Ghana, a country in West Africa.

The existing scholarship on African urban politics focuses primarily on formal institutions. These include elections, the rule of law, the police force, and state bureaucracies and planning agencies. A related scholarship examines how societal conditions like ethnicity and religion contribute to urban governance and political clientelism – the exchange of resources and favors for votes.

But after conducting ethnographic fieldwork, interviewing residents and leaders, and running an original household survey in some of Ghana’s poorest neighborhoods – often called slums or informal settlements – I uncovered a different story. I found that social practices that bring representatives and their constituents together in daily life provide the basis of democratic politics and political accountability.

Citizens engage in a variety of different social practices to hold their representatives to account, including appealing to their moral standing in daily activities like town hall meetings, nighttime chats, and house visits, as well as civic activism and street protests. Social gatherings like funerals, weddings, and festivals can also serve this purpose. I call these informal practices of accountability. I further theorize how daily interactions and power structures shape city- and national-level politics.

In-depth fieldwork helped me understand how social practices outside the official view – in the “hidden transcript,” as James Scott famously called it – shapes the political behavior of politicians, state bureaucrats, and traditional authorities. Paying close attention to this arena of politics also showed me that leaders gain power and authority by relying on informal norms and rules. For example, leaders are expected to act as friends, employers, parents, and religious leaders to their constituents. This provides one powerful explanation for why political clientelism persists despite the strengthening of liberal-democratic institutions.

Perhaps most importantly, I argue against conventional wisdom that democratic accountability does not emerge in poor, ethnically diverse, informal settlements. A dominant public and scholarly narrative is that African cities are “in crisis,” and that the urban population boom will damage prospects for sustainable development. This is because the majority of residents will live in unplanned and unsafe slums that lack secure property rights.

But political accountability and good governance can emerge in these unexpected places, as long as residents satisfy informal norms of settlement and belonging. Due to customary land tenure and historical settlement patterns, indigenous ethnic groups and migrant populations must reach a political bargain for a civic public to emerge and the needs and security of all residents to be fulfilled. The grassroots of community life determines the developmental success of a neighborhood, and the city as a whole.

As the United Nations declared several years ago: The future of Africa is urban. The political consequences of Africa’s rapid urbanization will shape the continent for years to come. These outcomes will play a major role in the democratic development of African governments, as well as the form that economic growth takes. A clearer picture of what takes place in daily life of these cities, as well as the power structures that keep the status quo in place or enable transformational change is a necessary starting point on the path toward sustainable urban development.

Jeffrey W. Paller is an Assistant Professor of Politics at University of San Francisco. He is currently completing a book manuscript entitled Accountability in Unexpected Places: Democratic Practices in African Slums.