Foreign aid and Ghanaian democracy

UNU-WIDER / Nov 2012

In the WIDER Working Paper 'Ghana: The Limits of External Democracy Assistance' E. Gyimah-Boadi and Theo Yakah look at how donor assistance has helped support elections, parliament, political parties, civil society, and the media in Ghana. They argue that while donor assistance has had a positive effect on Ghana's democratic evolution, donors still face some obstacles to promoting further democratization.

Ghana has made significant democratic gains since it transitioned from a quasi-military to a democratic government in 1992. While major challenges still exist Ghana has not suffered the stagnation or reversion of democracy that has occurred in other African third wave democracies. The strength of Ghana's democracy was recently put to the test following the death of President Mills in July 2012; the smooth transfer of the power to the Vice-President was a good demonstration of how far the system has come. In the WIDER Working Paper 'Ghana: The Limits of External Democracy Assistance' E. Gyimah-Boadi and Theo Yakah look at how donor assistance has helped support elections, parliament, political parties, civil society and the media in Ghana. They argue that while donor assistance has had a positive effect on Ghana's democratic evolution, donors still face some obstacles to promoting further democratization.


Ghana has made continuous improvements in the competitiveness, peacefulness, and credibility of its multi-party elections, demonstrated by the two peaceful turnovers of executive power following the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Donors have contributed to this by helping to improve voter registration, providing technical assistance to Ghana's Electoral Commission, supporting the education of Ghana's voters, and supplying vital equipment such as ballot boxes and registration form scanners.

Person singing after voting in the polling station in  Ivory Coast © UN Photo/Hien Macline

Donors have also helped promote a fruitful dialogue between parties about the issues surrounding elections. In 1995 the Inter-Party Advisory Committee (IPAC), funded by donors, was created for this purpose. Gyimah-Boadi and Yakah point out that through the IPAC, opposition parties won concessions that led to several transparency enhancing reforms at election time. Polling station counting was introduced, ballot boxes were made transparent, and party agents were allowed to be present at polling stations. The ability of parties and candidates to scrutinize and seek corrections to voter registration helped greatly in restoring opposition trust in the electoral process, and contributed to the competitiveness and credibility of the 1996 elections relative to the previous one.

Similarly, Gyimah-Boadi and Yakah argue, continued donor support for civil society organizations campaigning has enabled them to undertake a number of successful projects to increase governmental transparency and accountability. In 1996, donors financed a project, spearheaded by local civic groups, to carry out the first non-partisan election observation. Another donor funded project in 2000 enabled civic groups to observe and report on the unfair treatment and inadequate coverage of opposition parties in the media, helping to overcome another major concern with electoral fairness in Ghana.

However, election administration in Ghana is far from perfect. The integrity of the voters’ registry is questionable, and election officials are often not as professional or experienced as would be desirable. Elections in Ghana are still often fraught with intimidation and violence. Gyimah-Boadi and Yakah argue that these problems remain unaddressed, in spite of sustained donor support.


On transition to democracy, Ghana's parliament inherited a very weak institutional structure due to the fact that under the preceding military administrations it had no role to play. Gyimah-Boadi and Yakah point out that the executive has significant representation in parliament, and that a strong whip system and vast patronage powers of the incumbent president means that the executive largely succeeds in getting its policies through the house. Furthermore, due to the current interpretation of article 108 of the constitution, parliament is actually barred from proposing any initiative or bill which places financial burden on the state. This severely limits the parliament’s ability to seek solutions to the many public policy challenges Ghana faces.

Lawmakers meet during a session of Parliament in Accra, Ghana, June 16, 2006 © Jonathan Ernst/World Bank

Donors, who recognize Ghana's history of executive dominance, have naturally been keen to improve the capacity of parliament. The most extensive support has been given to strengthening the parliament’s capacity to oversee the country's financial affairs. Donors have run training workshops, and exchange visits, as well as provided support for a number of parliamentary committees, notably the public accounts committee. Gyimah-Boadi and Yakah argue that while the problem of executive dominance remains, donor support has helped increase parliament's accountability role, transparency and public participation.

However, not all donor interventions in Ghana have had a positive effect on the parliament’s capacity to hold the executive to account. The recent growth of budget support, which plays a positive role in promoting Ghana's ownership of its own development process, has the practical effect of further marginalizing parliament's role in financial affairs. Many budgetary decisions regarding both whether budget support is accepted, and how it is used, are made by the presidency and finance ministry, and subject to only perfunctory approval by parliament. Directly channeling external support through the presidency and the finance ministry has made it increasingly difficult for parliament to play a part in deciding how that money is used, and thus parliament’s capacity to hold the executive to account is diminished.

Political parties

In the 1992 election the National Democratic Congress party (NDC) won 189 of the 200 available seats in parliament, its majority was substantially reduced to 133 in 1996, and in 2000, it lost its parliamentary majority (with only 92 seats) and the presidency to the New Patriotic Party (NPP). Gyimah-Boadi and Yakah suggest that the rise and peaceful transition of power to the NPP in 2001 and the NDC’s victory in the 2008 polls and return to power in 2009 means that Ghana can now be considered a two party system.

Aside from the indirect benefits the opposition parties have gained through improvements to the electoral system, donors have provided direct support for their development. Leadership training, technical assistance, and grant support, have all helped to strengthen the institutional capacity of Ghana's political parties. In particular the two smaller parties, the Convention People's Party and the People's National Convention, have probably only survived due to donor support. Gyimah-Boadi and Yakah point out that these parties add new voices to parliamentary proceedings and provide voters with a vital third option.

However, Ghana's political parties still face significant problems which donors have proven less able to deal with. Chief among these is the problem of incumbency advantage. The incumbent party regularly uses its position to generate funding for campaigns, reward loyal workers with employment in state institutions, and solicit donations from wealthy individuals and private companies. The advantages provided by incumbency are large enough to potentially tip the balance in a close election and as such are a clear obstacle to a party system based on a level playing field. However, Gyimah-Boadi and Yakah point out that there is little donors can do to alter this situation; an incumbent government is unlikely to cooperate with programmes aimed at challenging the very benefits it enjoys.

Civil society and the Media

Both the media and civil society have played key roles in Ghana's democratic development. Private radio stations have consistently provided the most reliable political information, media scrutiny of government transactions has increased, and government representatives now regularly appear on the radio to discuss policy decisions and respond to allegations of wrongdoing. Civil society organizations have staged productive campaigns on issues such as corruption, gender equality, human rights, and social and economic development.

Donor support for the media and civil society has been strong. In 1997 the deportation of a senior US diplomat who had been campaigning for freedom of the press inspired the NPP administration to repeal the criminal libel legislation, which had previously been used to punish unruly journalists. Donor activity is partially responsible for the relaxation of official restrictions on the media which has contributed to Ghana's incredible progress in terms of media liberalization. Furthermore donors have played a role in assisting the technical capacity development of the media by providing both training and financing.

Similarly external funding and technical assistance have been crucial in promoting Ghana's civil society organizations. Bilateral funding is channeled to NGOs in Ghana both directly, and through donations to pooled funds which distribute resources independently. Furthermore donor activity in promoting democracy in Ghana has helped to cement the idea that civil society representatives deserve a role in the country’s policy making and evaluation forums.

Nevertheless, both the media and civil society face lingering problems. The level of professionalism in the media remains low, and journalists play a largely reactive role. The Ghanaian government's continued suspicion of the media is a significant obstacle to improving press freedom. In the same vein, civil society organizations still suffer from limited research capacity, being overly focused on urban areas, and being marginalized if they are considered to be unfriendly by the government.

Gyimah-Boadi and Yakah conclude that while donor support has helped to sustain and improve democracy in Ghana, there are limitations to what it can achieve. They point to two lessons donors can take from the development of democracy in Ghana. First, reforms were most successful when they enjoy support from the incumbent government. But there are many areas where the incumbent government has no incentive to support reform. Second, projects aimed at democratic development will be more successful if they engage both opposition parties and civil society.  In Ghana, the demand for greater transparency at election time created an environment which allowed donors to provided assistance in achieving this.

This report by James Stewart summarizes UNU-WIDER working paper no. 2012/40 'Ghana: The Limits of External Democracy Assistance' by E. Gyimah-Boadi and Theo Yakah. 

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