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Last Updated: Monday, 5 March 2007, 01:03 GMT
The voice of Ghana's youth
By Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News, Accra, Ghana

To mark the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence, the BBC World Service and British Council held an event to debate the country's progress since 1957.

About 300 young people expressed their hopes and fears for themselves and the nation they live in.

BBC presenter Komla Dumor addresses the audience
Many at a debate wanted Ghana to show more ambition in future
Frank Agyekum is under siege.

Sitting amongst hundreds of young Ghanaians, the government spokesman is being forced to defend his administration's record against a barrage of criticism.

Issues ranging from corruption and economic mismanagement to the country's education system are being held up as examples of failure and, despite the air conditioning, the minister is sweating.

"Ghana has done well," he says, to widespread groans.

He concedes that "we haven't done as much as the world expected of us at independence", citing the fact that in the late 1950s the country's per capita GDP was equivalent to that of South Korea, whereas the latter has gone on to far outstrip Ghana in terms of prosperity.

The number of Ghanaians living below the poverty line has gone down in the last 10 years
Ernest Aryeetey,
Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research

However, the minister points out that other west African countries have been ravaged by war and some nations have "crumbled".

In contrast, he describes Ghana as "a thriving democracy" with a "stable economy".

"Kids can go to school [and] they are being fed - education has shot up," argues Mr Agyekum, who concludes that the country's prospects for the future are bright.

But most of the crowd, which consists almost entirely of people aged between 20 and 30, make it clear that they disagree by murmuring and heckling.

Samuel Ablakwa sums up the mood of many when he says it is not enough to point to an absence of civil wars as a source of pride.

He says the country should show more ambition in the coming decades and look to join the world's elite.

Mathias Gakpo
Unemployed Mathias Gakpo says he would "go in a second"

"So many kids are still on the streets hawking," says the 26-year-old political science graduate, to widespread nods of agreement.

"You have to pay for uniforms and textbooks," he continues, challenging the minister's assertion that free education is widely available in Ghana.

And, as a parting shot that prompts laughter and applause from the crowd, he challenges the suggestion that the country's level of prosperity is high.

"I'm still carrying buckets [of water] on my head - at my age! Maybe our economists are cooking the figures."

A show of hands at the start of the debate, entitled "'Ghana@50: Success or failure?" suggested that the vast majority of the audience were unhappy with their standard of living.

Generation gap

This sense of frustration is evident as the debate unfolds. But this dissatisfaction is not shared by the older members of the crowd in the British Council hall, who believe the younger generation do not appreciate the gains made by Ghana since 1957.

Ernest Aryeetey, director of the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research, says he is "surprised" it is the young ones who are complaining about the standards in Ghana.

"It is their parents who should be complaining," he said.

"The number of Ghanaians living below the poverty line has gone down in the last 10 years."

Young man contributes to the debate
Although unhappy with living standards, most felt things would get better

Despite this observation, it is clear that the generation gap cannot be bridged and there is a belief among younger members of the audience that they are being left behind by their counterparts in other countries in terms of skills, education and prosperity.

"People are still looking to yesterday when they should be looking forward," says one audience member.

When the issue of the steady flow of young professionals leaving the country for the UK and US is raised, unemployed Mathias Gakpo, 25, says he would "go in a second" if it meant he could find work and enjoy and a better standard of living.

He says there are not enough opportunities available to succeed in Ghana.

When the migration of health professionals is raised, panellist Sylvia Osei, a nursing officer at a teaching hospital, says: "People are leaving for various reasons, from not having enough equipment to work with, to looking on helplessly while patients are dying."

Sense of optimism

Much of the dissatisfaction expressed by young Ghanaians in the room seems to stem from the belief that corruption remains rife among politicians.

The younger generation feels the politicians are more interested in personal wealth than in running the country efficiently.

Government ministers are only interested in lining their pockets, says one woman who argues that politicians send their children to foreign schools because they do not have faith in their country's education system.

God gave us the nut, but we have to crack it ourselves
Audience member Kwasi

And others say the millions of dollars reportedly being spent on the 50th anniversary celebrations - particularly on luxury cars for visiting dignitaries and on public toilets - would be better spent on improving the country's infrastructure.

This typifies the economic mismanagement they feel has hampered Ghana's development, they say.

But, as the debate begins to draw to a close, there are signs that the next generation of professionals, parents and political leaders believe they will not repeat the mistakes of those before them.

A show of hands suggests most of the 300-strong crowd believe Ghana's future is bright. The sense of optimism is epitomised by the words of two men in their early 20s.

"If you believe there are opportunities you will look out for them. If you don't believe they are there you won't look for them," says one, called Joseph, to rapturous applause.

The other one, who introduces himself as Kwasi, says: "We have the best brains amongst us, but we have to utilise that. God gave us the nut, but we have to crack it ourselves."

Listen to excerpts from the debate:

If you are aged between 20 and 30 and living in Ghana, you can enter the BBC's NewsMaker competition. Share your news with 42 million people worldwide - and you could win a laptop. Click here to find out more.

How Ghana has changed since 1957


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