BY KWAME MARFO
“Besides politics and armed robbery, which occupation puts you in good stead to become a millionaire in Africa?”, a wise old man once asked me on a recent visit to Ghana. “Religious leaders!”, he quipped with a laugh, to put me out of my misery after a few unsuccessful attempts.
This running joke exaggerates the said riches in the mazy world of the church industrial complex for desired effects. However, it lends a voice to the emerging view that some churches in God Nation (my metaphor for Africa due to its unbridled religiosity and intensity) may be losing their way. This threatens their long-term viability. You only need to look at Europe, which until a few decades ago was a similar hot bed of religious intensity.
This is an unfortunate development. As a person of faith, I have witnessed at first hand the invaluable role churches play in Africa. They are sources of inspiration and an escape from the grinding poverty and despair that afflict many in God Nation. They provide social services, serve as a check on nations’ conscience and provide meaning to life.
Moreover, these institutions have played a major role in macroeconomic development, harking back to the days of the early missionaries, particularly in human capital development and optimization. For all its faults, colonization’s best gift to Africa was the introduction of “formal” education mostly built by its accompanying christian missionaries. Looking at my home country, Ghana for example, the schools that they built have become the training grounds for the nations best and brightest, whose products range anywhere from Chelsea FC’s midfielder, Michael Essien to former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. These schools have been the gifts that have kept on giving, and have been by far the major drivers of economic development – I would argue, to an even greater extent than the nation’s considerable natural resources. Need evidence? Look at Michael Essien whose annual salary alone- close to $6m – is not insignificant considering the fact that the nation earned a mere $116m in royalty for gold exports in 2010, despite having one of the supposed richest and oldest gold mines in the world.
Unfortunately African churches of today have morphed into the good (in most cases), the so-so, and in some cases, the plain ugly, betraying the ideals of their earlier forbearers. By my back of the envelope calculation, the combined annual intake of churches from tithes and offerings amount to $500m ($1 billion on a PPP basis). However, if you visit some churches in Ghana today, their incessant pleas for money create the impression that they may be on their last legs. On my recent visit to Ghana where I went to a church service on December 31st for an all night vigil to usher in the new year (which fell on Saturday) and later to the customary Sunday church service, which occurred several hours later, I must have counted at least six rounds of requests to give offertory over the two services. This is not to mention the fact that the same church held two additional services on the same day, where it in all likelihood asked for similar rounds of money. To its credit, this church‘s head is in the right place and has been an active contributor to social services. However, this institution and other well-meaning churches’ sometimes “excessive” request for money have acted as a perfect foil for some religious entrepreneurs to enter into a similar space for their personal benefit. Moreover, poor financial management on the part of most of these institutions lead to waste – bringing them back to the congregation in request for news funds in spite of the vast sums of money they collect.
The model appears to be broken. Churches have become cash cows and have embarked upon massive empire building projects to attract even more people and more money in order to sustain this spree. While I share the view that the house of the Lord should be in all its glorious majesty, it becomes a problem when everyone is pursuing the same noble goal with most unable to sustain it – leaving in their trail a number of white elephant projects, with little economic value. These projects are often funded on the back of its congregants – many of whom live on less than a dollar a day. Moreover the correlation between the sheer number of churches and spirituality are tepid at best. For example, Jamaica has the highest concentration of churches in the world but as recent as 2005, had the highest crime rate in the world, not least due to high levels of poverty. The vast sums of money generated from churches could play a critical role in helping reduce the high incidence of poverty and contribute to infrastructure projects (schools, hospitals, etc) much like the old missionaries did. There are also questions to be asked as to whether most of this growth has been real or just cannibalizing the converted from each other.
Reform is in order. A faith based version of a sovereign wealth fund (faith wealth fund (FWF)) could be set up to channel some of these funds into building schools and hospitals or even contribute to massive infrastructure projects needed to plug the $1.5b per anum infrastructure deficit that continues to hamper the nation in its quest to establish itself as a bonafide middle income country. This is not an unusual ask considering the fact that the recently built Bui hydro-electric project that is expected to alleviate the chronic power outages (that has, for example, made the nation’s nascent manufacturing sector uncompetitive) cost $600m dollars, mostly in loans from the Chinese government. Even from a purely selfish perspective, being part of a syndicate on such projects could generate future cash flows for a long time that will tremendously improve the financial well being of these churches. More importantly, improved economic growth from better roads, power plants and ports would increase the income of members of their congregation, increasing the amount churches could potentially generate from tithes and offering.
Smart public policy has a role to play. The new Public-Private Partnership (PPP) infrastructural development law, which is currently being drafted in Ghana, anchors the debate in the right direction. A carrot and sticks approach should be used to coerce churches to make their finances more transparent. The threat of taxes could be used to bring nonconforming churches to toe the line. For example tax authorities could grant tax-exemption status only to institutions that contribute to the proposed FWF fund, a forced retirement or saving funds of sorts. There are some (a few bad ones who soil the good name of the faithful) who operate for the private benefit of a privileged few. They should be taxed as such.
Due to the appalling track record of public officials in finances, I believe the first port of call should be the industry, civil society and even business, for example, in setting up the fund elucidated above. The Council of Churches, the trade body of churches could play such a leadership role. Public officialdom should only come in if repeated attempts at persuasion fail.
Copyright 2012 (July) Neo-African Consensus