Like many Ghanaians, I was shocked by the sudden death of Prof. Kwesi Botchwey, Ghana’s longest-serving finance minister, and, more recently, chairman of the National Development Planning Commission (NDPC), on 19th November 2022 in Accra.
Shocked because only a couple of weeks earlier, I had spoken to him about “the book”, and he had assured me – as he had on previous occasions – that he would soon finish it. “Chairman,” I said, “we need that book more than ever before. It’s taking too long”.
“The book” was his memoir – his life as an academic (at home and abroad), a public servant, an elder statesman, and of course a family man.
I was the director-general at the Commission when he chaired it, and so I had a chance to engage him in close quarters on some of the contents of the impending memoir and many of the development challenges facing Ghana.
I first heard of Prof. Botchwey in the early 1980s, when he became finance minister of the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) under Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings, and he had to shoulder the burden of leading Ghana out of a decade-plus of economic rot and social despair.
I was a young economics student in America then and naturally took a keen interest in his work and the overall turmoil that was then roiling the country’s economy. There was the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP), funded and supported by donors like the International Monetary Fund, and the more-targeted Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), funded mainly by the World Bank.
Both appeared to have brought some relief – but at a social cost, with poverty rising as thousands of civil servants were laid off or “redeployed” into other occupations. The ERP, for instance, abolished price controls, long a misguided feature of the economy that had led to shortages of basic commodities like bathing soap and cooking oil. The removal of controls led to an immediate increase in prices but only briefly; soon enough, hoarders began to flood the market with their goods, and prices actually declined.
The mass layoffs from a bloated government bureaucracy and the decision to charge “economic rates” for certain social services, however, had the unintended effect of worsening poverty across the country. Prof. Botchwey and his team came up with the Programme of Action to Mitigate the Social Cost of Adjustment (PAMSCAD), which would go on to have a mixed record, at best.
This called for a critical evaluation of Ghana’s development strategy. Instead of fighting fires every few years with IMF and World Bank support, the PNDC concluded that Ghana needed a long-term road map to guide its development, bring about some predictability and stability. The result was the establishment of the National Development Planning Commission and the preparation of Ghana’s first long-term national development plan, *Vision 2020*, which, sadly, was abandoned after 2000 partly because it had Mr. Rawlings’s picture in it.
In 2009, I met the legendary Prof. Botchwey for the first time at the inaugural meeting of an economic advisory council that Prof. John Evans Atta Mills had set up upon assuming office as president. We were both members, and we soon forged a close working relationship when he learnt that I had attended primary school at Agona Swedru, next to Agona Asafo, where he was chief.
I soon left to take up an appointment as a senior economist with UNDP South Africa, although I remained a virtual member of the council. We communicated off and on via email afterwards. Our physical paths crossed again in September 2014 when President John Mahama appointed him chairman of the Commission and I was hired by the Public Services Commission as director-general in the same month.
Togethe, we set out to prepare what is now known colloquially as Ghana’s 40-Year Development Plan. Amidst a hectic schedule of public consultations and Commission meetings, we found time to discuss and debate topical issues of development. I learnt a great deal from him in the process.
Once, he said, referring to his time as finance minister, he decided to investigate why government’s capital expenditure was increasing but the country’s infrastructure was not seeing any significant improvement: It turned out that most of the money was going into purchasing vehicles and other luxuries for government officials. When he cracked down, he became even more hated by his colleagues, who thought he was too tight-fisted with public money.
One of our most memorable conversations was about the circumstances that led to his resignation as finance minister in 1995, after 13 years at the helm. He pulled out a yellow pad and read me parts of his draft resignation letter that showed that he would rather stick to his principles and leave than hang on to power against policies or strategies that he didn’t believe in.
This was all the more reason why I kept pestering him about “the book”, because I knew he would have enough to say that would enrich both development discourse and policy as Ghana continues to search for a viable path to its development. If what I learnt from our conversations is anything to go by, then “the book” should be all but ready and must be published posthumously by his family.
Prof. Botchwey was a polyglot who, besides English, spoke his native Fante, Hausa, Twi, and Ga fluently. We communicated almost entirely in Ga. And so I say, “Chairman, yaa wor odzogbann”.