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Student Voice - Ghana - 2016

David Gyuhyeon Sim


May 12, 2014. It was a cloudy day at the Entebbe International Airport, Uganda. I boarded the flight that would take me back to Seoul, after a turbulent seven months in South Sudan as a Peacekeeper. Our charter plane was full of joy and relief of the three hundred Korean soldiers who would finally return home, having endured five months of the Civil War in South Sudan. Amidst the overwhelmingly cheerful atmosphere, unceasingly looking outside the window, I could not hide my mixed feelings about leaving Africa. I felt like I had an unfinished business there. South Sudan, the youngest country in the world in which our troop served in, was still suffering from the violent struggle between the Nuer and the Dinka which effectively threw the entire nation into a warzone, creating thousands and thousands of victims. As the plane took off, still looking outside over the lands that were distancing away, I decided that one day I would come back here in search for how to restore hope in this troubled land

Two years passed. While planning for which would be my last summer at Cornell, I found the Cornell IAD summer internship program. I took the program as an opportunity to fulfill the promise that I made to myself two years ago—to return to Africa, to learn and find a way to build a sustainable hope throughout the continent. Although restoring and maintaining peace is important, to me returning to Africa never really meant going back to the lands of broken peace. I believe that it is eventually the economic development—bringing countries out of poverty with a sustainable development—that will to many complicated issues and problems across the continent. My previous experience as a military personnel was valuable but limited in terms of gaining a better understanding of the society. Hence the purpose of the summer internship was to develop a better understanding of the society I would live in, learn about the challenges and current efforts in achieving economic development, and develop my own visions in reaching the development goals.


In Country:

Before the arrival I did not know much about the country. I knew it was in West Africa, neighboring Ivory Coast and Togo, a former British colony, and had one of the strongest national soccer teams in the continent. In particular, I did not have much information about the social and economic aspects about the country. My first sight of the country came to me as my taxi drove out of the Accra International Airport and ran through outskirts of the city. Driving on the roads that were overflowing with cars and long overdue for proper maintenance, I travelled through luxury houses, suburban malls, slums, abandoned construction sites, undeveloped lots, and other lost spaces. The city was in a state of disarray, and inequality among the people was so visible.

My internship placement was slightly different from what I had expected, as I learned that I would spend a few weeks in different ministries with flexible, tentative schedules, as opposed to working as a full-time intern at an organization or office. I spent the next few weeks in two different Ghanaian government ministries:

the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development and the Ministry of Urban Roads. I was excited to learn more about the development challenges in the country and how the government is tackling them. But, as it always happens, things did not always go a. Part of the problem came from the nature of the work itself. Despite the numerous challenges to be dealt outside, the workload of some of the offices were low, and bureaucratic inefficiency was palpable. The other side of the problem came from myself. As a temporary intern from overseas without a great deal of expertise and knowledge about the country, the scope of work I could do was naturally limited.

During my stay I had opportunities to travel outside Accra. The most memorable trip was the one to Sunyani, the capital town of the Brong-Ahafo region, which is about 7 hours northwest from Accra, to attend the 2016 Ghana Urban Forum with the delegations from the Ministry of Urban Roads. The Forum was an in-depth discussion about the national urban and regional developmental initiatives as Ghana adjusts its future plans to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Sustainable Development Goals; SDGs). On the contrary to the bureaucratic apathy that I was witnessing daily, the energy of the place—filled with field experts, academia, government officials from across the nation—was tremendous. I wished if only we could transfer that energy and want for change to a well-planned, consistent implementation of policies. I also made visited the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, where I could further expand my understanding of the challenges in development by talking to professors who were experts in the field of urban and regional development.


After Returning:

I think what I experienced in Ghana was a perplexing mixture of opportunities, frustration, and hope. When we contemplate about the issues in social and economic development, we tend to oversimplify variables and outcomes, often believing that a particular approach or solution will solve the problems and have everyone on the upward trajectory. However, the truth is that there is a daunting degree of complexity in almost every issue, and it is impossible for the outsiders to fully comprehend its dimensions without experiencing and immersing themselves into each scene. And outsiders, from individual volunteers to intergovernmental agencies, play a significant role in the public decision-making.

For instance, the newest public transit development in Accra, the introduction of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, which was recognized and lauded by many and also funded by the World Bank, has a stellar outlook and profile, but from what I observed in the country its completion later this year is not really going to provide any fundamental help to the city’s struggling public transit system, which is dominated by small public vans called ‘trotro’. Trotro is the most effective public mode of public transit and also what I used to commute every day, but is unsafe and its operations are not properly regulated by the governing authorities. Traffic situations in the major trotro stations are always chaotic and responsible for endless congestion.

I would like to end my reflection with another kind of personal experience that I have never had elsewhere. As an international student in Cornell, being a student of a minority race without a US citizenship from a different cultural background, I was always an outsider, often pushed back due to my minority status, in various scenes from public to private, personal experiences. Yet in Ghana I was called a ‘white’ who often received preferential treatments. Sometimes the they were obvious, such as easy access to high-level government officials and the occasional overly-favorable reactions by others in conversations. But many times they were much less conspicuous and harder to notice, like a slight difference in other person’s facial expressions, gesture and tones, and being the focal point of the conversation when talking in a group. Honestly, I did not quite fully grasp how receiving a preferential treatment affected my daily life until after a few weeks when I had a conversation about the topic with Dennis, my roommate in Ghana.

As a closing remark, I would like to thank the Cornel IAD for this opportunity that I had, and also Dr. Akunzule and Dennis who were always willing to help me during my times in Ghana. I hope the lessons I learned will help me make contributions as citizens all around the world keep the efforts to shape a better future.