Information is Power: Ashaiman Residents Drive Profiling in Greater Accra, Ghana

by James Tayler

Ashaiman, Accra

By Barbara Torresi, People’s Dialogue Ghana


Wednesday 16 May 2012 was a glorious day for the citizens of Ashaiman, a town in Greater Accra, since after months of careful preparations the spatial component of a multi-pronged Cities Alliance programme called Land, Services, and Citizenship (LSC) was finally kicked off. The Ghana Urban Poor Federation’s (GHAFUP) mandate with regard to this SDI-backed initiative consists of profiling all the slums in the Greater Accra Metropolitan Region (GAMA), an exercise that will provide communities with in-depth knowledge of their own constituencies and a strong tool with which to negotiate settlement and poverty reduction interventions with both government and private stakeholders.

One of the reasons that made Accra and its satellite municipalities appealing to international donors is the existence of a strong local federation which, through concerted efforts to organise its constituencies into a cohesive force, has been successfully lobbying against the twin scourges of forced evictions and deteriorating living conditions for over a decade. Currently the country’s shining beacon for the pursuants of bottom-up development is the mammoth settlement of Old Fadama – aka Sodom and Gomorrah for its now fast withering detractors – which in the space of a few years has managed to transform its reputation from that of a biblical hotbed of crime into a flagship example of grassroots power.


Ashaiman, Accra

Profiling Ashaiman

But while all the attention was focused on this mud-and-tin spatial incongruity a stone’s throw from Accra’s CBD, away from the spotlight and unbeknown to most, another expansive slum community had been following Old Fadama’s proactive approach to self-betterment by engaging a historically hostile government into upgrading discussions. In this case, however, negotiations were facilitated by the fact that the slum in question is a municipality in its own right, recently born as an autonomous administrative division out of what some describe, with a typically Ghanaian penchant for biblical references, as the rotten rib of the formerly prosperous port of Tema. Originally conceived as a commuter neighbourhood for the workers of Ghana’s premier dockyard, and following rising unemployment levels in the 2000s, Ashaiman slowly morphed into the epitome of tropical urban blight, a dusty shackland where as many as 90% of households meet UN-Habitat’s criteria for the definition of a slum. In numbers, this translates into approximately 300,000 of the municipality’s estimated 340,000 inhabitants living without water and sanitation or occupying overcrowded, ramshackle structures with little ability to withstand the vagaries of West African weather.

Yet, Ashaiman is a lively, buzzing, and tight-knit collection of communities with a thriving informal economy, a harmonious environment that has favoured the establishment of a local arm of GHAFUP rivalling, for strength and cohesiveness, its counterpart in Old Fadama. Thanks to the ingenuity and, to an extent, the more favourable tenure situation of the city’s constituent communities, the Ashaiman Federation has been able to roll out an impressive array of upgrading projects, ranging from a 47-unit, mixed-use housing development to a citywide upgrading programme whose ambitious goal is to install private toilets in 100 households. All these initiatives, which were facilitated by low-interest loans from SDI and incentivised by a budding partnership with the local municipality, rely heavily on the existence of strong savings collectives and the willingness of the residents of Ashaiman to contribute to their own socio-economic upliftment.

To return to our story, on a sunny Wednesday morning a fifteen-strong, gender equal delegation consisting of settlement profilers, opinion leaders, and assembly members, congregated for the first of a series of focus groups designed to uncover facts and figures related to the eight most severely deprived communities in the municipality of Ashaiman. The focus groups, which were facilitated by Mensah Owusu, a programme manager from the local support NGO (People’s Dialogue), and Charles Zuttah Chartey, a GHAFUP leader, were structured as day-long workshops designed to provide participants with the opportunity to thoroughly unpack issues as diverse as the number of stand pipes in each settlement and the literacy level of the population. According to Halid Alhassan, one of the leading members of the Ashaiman Federation, the exercise was very well received by the residents, which perceived it as a great opportunity to involve the local government into the management of their living environment.

The second phase of this profiling exercise consists in the validation of the physical data from the focus groups. To this end, dedicated mapping teams are currently walking the streets of Ashaiman to localise, with the aid of GPS technology, infrastructures like public toilets and stormwater channels as well as essential services like schools, creches, and clinics. The reasoning behind this exercise is that the spatial representation of a settlement’s infrastructure is a valuable add-on to narrative profiling since it can help stakeholders determine where new facilities are needed the most.

While the Ashaiman profilers are busy with this pilot study, the other programme beneficiaries, namely the cities of Tema, Accra, and Ledzokuku-Krowor (LEKMA), are following in their leading sister’s footsteps by exploring their own community-held knowledge through roundtables and focus groups, which will be followed by infrastructure and service mapping once all the socio-economic data has been gathered. Completion of the LSC programme is expected for the first quarter of 2013, after which it will be extended to the remaining GAMA municipalities of Ga South, Ga East, Ga West, and Adenta.


Informal traders in Ashaiman

Information is Power

But why is this initiative so important? Firstly, it generates awareness within a community and raises the profile of the urban poor. A prime example of how self-administered census-type surveys can change people’s perception of a slum is provided by the parable of Old Fadama, which ascended from the pits of being branded “a menace in Accra” and a “catastrophe waiting to happen,” to the heights of mediatic praise after the community took the lead in the implementation of a desilting project designed to mitigate the impact of its booming population on the surrounding eco-system. What enabled such a productive partnership between government and landless dwellers was a string of SDI-backed enumerations that, since 2004, have been projecting into the public domain the image of a cohesive community that is part and parcel of the urban habitat.

One of the biggest challenges faced by slum dwellers all over the world is in fact the stigma attached to living in an environment that is routinely depicted as an impenetrable jungle of ignorance, sloth, and self-inflicted deprivation. As Grace, a long term resident of Old Fadama, explains: “people blame us for where we live [and] think that we are criminals or beggars [just] waiting for a handout”. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth, since according to the latest enumeration a staggering 96% of Old Fadama’s residents are gainfully employed as traders in the nearby Agbogbloshie market or as small business owners in the settlement itself. The power of profiling and enumerations lies thus in their ability to open up “the slum universe” to the world, to humanise the mysterious “other” and ultimately to portray slum dwellers as valuable players in the city’s economy.

Secondly, profiling highlights a community’s most urgent needs in a format that can be used to leverage funds for upgrading; moreover, when the exercise is conducted at a regional scale it allows settlements to be classified according to their deprivation level. Therefore, it is hoped that the efforts being undertaken in GAMA will allow interventions to be prioritised and directed at those most in need. In Halid’s concluding words: “we are very satisfied with the way our communities are driving the process and we hope that the information [we are acquiring] will give us the power to engage the assembly [into a constructive dialogue] to solve the problems that affect our residents [the most]”.