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The Responsibility of Wealth and Privilege

By Kwabena Owusu-Adjei
Managing Partner – Investments, ThirdWay Capital

(Editor Note: Kwabena first published this article on Medium, on June 5, 2019 – one year before ThirdWay Capital became a project, and two before the firm become an incorporated reality. His article expresses the kinds of questions and challenges that eventually gave birth to ThirdWay Capital as an impact-investing venture firm)

Let’s start with a simple question: what do wealthy people in Ghana do with their money?

Take a few seconds to ponder the question. It’s a question I’ve been fixated on for the last couple of weeks. I’ve mustered the courage to pose the question to some rather wealthy people at point blank range recently as part of a rather unscientific fact-finding mission. The answers I’ve heard are at best scary and at worst tragic but in all cases, the answers have struck at the core of many of the socio-political problems this country faces.

Wealth isn’t something we talk about much in Accra; not in a constructive way anyway. We may from time to time discuss who has it, our disdain for how they got it or our desire to amass similar fortunes. Yet we seldom talk about how to get it, how to keep it and what to do with it once we have it. As for wealth’s close confederate “privilege”, most people wouldn’t even recognize it if it slapped them across the face with a “banku-ta” (a Ghanian style wooden spatula for the uninitiated) and yet it is appropriated with increasing regularity in this town.

Linked to the question of what do rich people in Ghana do with their money is the broader question “do people who have access to wealth and privilege owe a responsibility to their societies and if so, what is that responsibility?” It’s an important question anywhere in the world but especially so in a place like Ghana because, let’s face it, (1) there simply aren’t that many people of wealth and privilege and (2) the needs of this society are that much greater than most other part of the world.

I have strong views on this subject but before I share them, let me share this anecdote from a few years ago that helped shape my thinking on this matter:

Its June 2015 and I’ve just left my pretty decent job working for a multinational conglomerate to go set up a venture capital fund with the hope of helping to channel capital and business expertise in the direction of promising Ghanaian start-ups and SME’s that are in dire need of both. Before I said “hasta la vista” to my job, I had sounded the idea out to a few Ghanaian high-net individuals and a few of them had suggested that they would be interested in taking a bet on my new venture. One of the gentlemen I spoke to had just sold one of his businesses for US$35 Million cash and had once quipped to me “Kwabena, I don’t have to ever work again”. This was someone I’d always considered a mentor and a friend, a patriot and who gave generously to charity without making a song and dance about it.

With all this in mind he was naturally my first point of call. After sitting through my rather detailed pitch (product samples and all) he retorted: “I can barely spend the interest on my treasury bills, why should I take additional risk and invest any money with you”? A fair question to ask if you refer to any economics textbook. But consider that in any economy there are fundamentally only three sources of funding for value creation which are a) government spending, b) personal and institutional funds and c) external/donor funds. If you further consider the limited availability and/or complexities of government and donor funding in this part of the world, the role that personal and institutional wealth plays in value creation is that much more amplified.

Perhaps a better question for my prospective investor to have asked is “Do I have any responsibility to use my wealth and privilege to empower and/or amplify the next generation of Ghanaians and if so where does that responsibility start and stop”? I wouldn’t be so bold so as to ask for $35M but perhaps one could put $350K at risk so that maybe, just maybe, we might create meaning full jobs for 50 Ghanaians? How about $200K? $50K?

Let me be unequivocal here; this post isn’t my reaction to being jilted by a potential investor. I actually went on to help raise over $800K for Ghanaian SMEs (not as much as I would have liked but still impactful) and the lessons from the “rejection” set me up nicely for what I do today. This is bigger than that. This post comes from a deep worry within me that the development that we so desperately want to see in this country continues to elude us because those who are best placed to be catalysts for it are sleeping on the job!

We often talk about economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa while decoupling it from social development. The holistic development of a nation however requires that that nation’s Politics, Education, Arts, Religion, Laws and Science (The PEARLS as I call them) all develop in tandem with its Economics. To focus only on economic development while neglecting the PEARLS will lead to lopsided development that will serve to ultimately reverse the economic gains that have been made. But shaping the PEARLSE (economics included) requires the active participation of those with wealth and privilege. The most effective way to shape the Ghanaian art ecosystem for example is for those with the wealth and privilege to do so to fund fellowships, galleries, exhibitions, residencies and commissions of the work that best reflects the type of artistic expression that we would like to see from Ghana. People of wealth and privilege have shown limited interest at best in the development of arts and culture ecosystem in Ghana thus creating a void that has been filled by the likes of the French Cultural Agency and the Goethe Institute. The bi-product of this is the proliferation of art that looks at Africa and Ghana through Eurocentric lenses (oh look another photo shoot in Jamestown…sigh).

The example of the Ghanaian art ecosystem used above also highlights another social truth that appears to be lost on those of wealth and privilege in this country; he/she who pays the piper calls the tune. In simple terms, the best way to change the programming on radio or TV for example isn’t to complain about it, it’s to buy the darn TV or radio station (shout outs to News Corp and Fox News). In the west, film and television have been used to systematically shape the national discourse on issues such as LGBTQ rights, smoking, race relations and the like. One can’t help but wonder why we can’t use the same medium to shape views on open defecation, public littering and social responsibility. I often cringe and bite my tongue when I hear demonstrably wealthy people complain about government actions in the way and manner that the average-joe would. My first instinct is to scold them by highlighting the fact that the reason why they are as helpless as the average-joe is is that they don’t fund sh*t! But the way my bank account is set up more often than not forces me to reconsider my actions. It’s as true today as it was when the Pied Piper of Hamelin was first written: “He who pays the piper, calls the tune”.

Economic empowerment, artistic expression, social behaviour, these are only a few example of ways in which wealth and privilege can be used to shape the development of our society. In order to do so however, those of us with wealth and privilege have to (a) recognize the power of their wealth and privilege and (b) start using it to influence the socio-economic development of this nation. Without the agency of this class of our society, we are arguably left to the whims and caprices of politicians motivated primarily by the desire to stay in office.

True self-actualization of our wealthy class is what is required in order for them to start to exert influence on the development of our nation and continent. Until then, this class will continue to harbour what are very middle-class aspirations; holidays in the Caribbean, a new SUV, a shopping spree in Dubai. To what end?

So yes, I believe people of wealth and privilege do owe a responsibility to their societies which goes well beyond paying taxes or charitable contributions and its high time they rose to the challenge!

PS: The title picture is of Tokini Peterside (3rd from left) at Art X Lagos, West Africa’s first international art fair which she founded. Tokini is abit of a role model to me and for me she is an example of someone using her wealth, privilege and access to empower and amplify others.



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