Development Discourse with Amos Safo: The controversies and economics of a National Cathedral

National Cathedral

Ghana is currently enmeshed in debates over the economic merits and demerits of constructing a National Cathedral. Thanks to media information, it appears public opinion is weighing heavily against continuation of the project due to the ongoing economic and financial difficulties the country is facing.

A few weeks ago, media reports and comments suggested that the project had failed to take off as planned despite the release of money to that effect. Some media and politicians raised eyebrows over the recent payment of money to contractors from the public purse. This caused an outcry against using public funds for construction of the cathedral, with some commentators suggesting that the project is not worth any public investment. The opposition against public funding comes against the backdrop of government’s assurance that the project will be largely funded by the private sector.

For the opposition, the cathedral might just be a project they can cite as government’s failure to deliver a promise, even though they are the loudest against it because of current economic and financial difficulties. Some opposition elements have gone to the extent of blaming the current flooding in Accra and some cities across Ghana on government’s plans to construct the cathedral. This demonstrates how petty our politics and journalism has become.

In all honesty, at the time the cathedral was conceived no one anticipated flooding and the negative impact of COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war on the global and Ghanaian economy. In my opinion, advocating for defunding the project simply because the country is going through economic challenges is not a farsighted solution. What many people have failed to understand is that the National Cathedral is a national monument and not for an individual or a government. Legally, the National Cathedral of Ghana is a state-owned company limited by guarantee, and was incorporated under the Companies Act, 1963 (Act 179) on July 18, 2019.

In his first official announcement on the project on March 6, 2017, the president underscored the project as a National Cathedral. The justification as indicated by the president was three-fold:  (1) gesture of thanksgiving; (2) symbol of the Christian presence and contributions to the nation; and (3) a personal pledge to God. Perhaps, of these three reasons, the personal pledge casts the Cathedral as a ‘private’ project that needs to be constructed without state support. However, the president’s pledge to oversee construction of the cathedral in no way makes it his personal or private property so as to warrant solely private funding.

In response to media criticism over public funding of the project, the National Cathedral Secretariat explains that the cathedral is a national monument and not a private project. It is, however being developed in partnership between the state and the church. According to the Secretariat the release of Seed money in 2022 was a practical response to the commitment made by the state to the National Cathedral project, which was highlighted in the 2018 Budget Statement.

Economic justification

The Secretariat has outlined the cathedral’s potential benefits to Ghana’s economy, especially in the tourism sector.   First, with an auditorium space of 5,000 expandable to 15,000 with chapels and prayer rooms, the cathedral is expected to provide massive infrastructure for solemn national occasions like state funerals, presidential inaugural services and national thanksgiving services.  Second, it is also expected to act as a platform to bond Christians spiritually and to rally round the country in times of difficulties. Significantly, the cathedral’s potential to foster national cohesion was affirmed by the Supreme Court ruling in favour of the project on January 23, 2019.

Third, the addition of an ‘economic engine’ to this national monument consisting of multiple revenue sources – including multipurpose rental spaces, 1,000+ seating banquet hall, a 350-seat restaurant, café, shop, theatres, conference hall, etc. – introduces a sustainable model for managing our national monuments.

Fourth, the addition of Africa’s first bible museum with a thematic focus on the role of Africa and Africans in the bible; and the Biblical Gardens of Africa featuring trees, shrubs and flowers of the bible provides additional relevance for the National Cathedral project. This potentially positions Ghana as a major site for religious pilgrimage and a home for African Christianity.  Finally, the cathedral is aimed at transforming Ghana’s tourism industry into a major source of revenue and job creation. Additionally, the cathedral and museum are expected to serve as a platform for National, African and Global dialogue and research on the role of faith and national transformation.

Upfront investments

The Secretariat argues that the development of such infrastructure always involves upfront investment that might seem to be competing with other societal needs. Yet the history of economic development shows that the economic impact of such projects is almost immediate once the project is completed. It argues that the country will benefit economically through job creation when completed.

“Increasing tourism is one of the best ways for a country to create new revenue, not just regurgitate existing revenue. For instance, the prospects of attracting even just 10% of the over 600 million Christians in Africa as religious tourists present a major economic opportunity for the country. Similarly, the growing interest in the project by Black churches in America augurs well for the National Cathedral and the country,” the Secretariat says in a statement.

Value for money?

Likewise, Minister of Finance Ken Ofori-Atta has been on the defensive, arguing that the   National Cathedral will yield more revenue for the state than its critics anticipate. Speaking on GTV’s current affairs show ‘Talking Point’ on Sunday 12 June, 2022, Mr. Ofori-Atta said once completed the National Cathedral is expected to yield at least US$1.8billion within the first five years of operation.

Mr. Ofori-Atta reiterated that the state is not funding the project entirely but in partnership with the Christian community and benevolent institutions and individuals. He therefore urged the public to donate toward the project to help enhance the country’s spirituality. He said attempts to politicise the project are inappropriate as it is government’s effort to enhance the country’s spirituality while making Ghana the only country in Africa with a cathedral that can attract tourists. But many critics to refer to the Basilica of Yamoussoukro in the Ivory Coast as an example of poor state investment in religious edifices.

Tourist attraction

Mr. Ofori-Atta maintains the project was well-crafted to double as a tourist attraction for Christians in Ghana, Africa and the world at large. Like the Cathedral Secretariat, he cites the planned bible museum and addition of trees and artifacts of biblical background to the cathedral as avenues to attract tourists. He projects that the national edifice will attract many religious tourists to help bolster the economy, as happens in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries with similar projects. According to him. Israel hosts more than four million people annually with an associated U$6billion contribution to the economy. The Hajj pilgrimage on the other hand brings in 2.5 million attendees, with an associated economic impact of US$8billion.

Economic challenges

The Finance Minister argues that the current economic challenges should not deter the state from fulfilling its responsibility of building a monument that has huge investment potential. While admitting that concerns over the project’s cost to the taxpayer are genuine, he holds that debate on the financial prudence and relevance of the National Cathedral is misguided. “The question being asked is: are we spending money from state coffers?”

He insists that many people are against the cathedral because they are not well-informed about its long-term benefit. “I understand why some people are speaking against the project. They are concerned about the current economic conditions; however, it doesn’t mean that government cannot prioritise,” he said.

“We can’t wait till the economy is perfect before we can focus on infrastructural development and monuments. We look at Jubilee House today with pride; the same way, in some years to come we will appreciate building the cathedral,” he added. I couldn’t agree more with the Finance Minister.

To be honest, when the Jubilee House being constructed some Ghanaians led by the current opposition party described it as a wasteful venture and fit for a poultry farm. Today, Jubilee House is cited among the top-ten most beautiful presidential palaces in Africa. At the time of constructing Jubilee House, Ghana hadn’t solved all its economic and financial problems. Likewise, when the National Theatre and the Accra International Conference Centre were constructed Ghana was in throes of structural adjustment and economic recovery.  Like many economists and finance experts, Mr. Ofori-Atta disagrees with the theory of economic scarcity, arguing that: “There is no scarcity anywhere. There is abundance, and it takes visionary leadership to design mechanisms for equality, fair share and social justice”.

Heritage Tourism

In almost every corner of the world, religious architecture, sacred spaces and celebrations of faith lie at the heart of heritage tourism. Nearly every package tour of Europe, Asia and Latin America includes visits to religious heritage sites and extols the virtues of spiritual landscapes

England has 42 Anglican cathedrals, many of which are major visitor attractions and together welcome around 10 million visitors per year. Cathedrals generate substantial local economic benefits of some £150million per annum within their urban economies and employ 1,885 people on a full-time basis. Cathedral visitors spend approximately £30 a day on a visit to a cathedral city, but unfortunately very little of this revenue is received by the cathedral as donations.

Studies have shown that cathedrals are an important part of the historical, economic and architectural fabric of many urban areas in the United Kingdom. Indeed, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey were the 9th and 10th most-visited paid attractions in Britain for 2013, receiving over 4 million visits between them – with Canterbury Cathedral also appearing among the top-25 most-visited paid attractions with more than one million visits.

While, I totally support construction of the National Cathedral, with public-private partnership, my worry remains our maintenance culture. Ghana is already blessed with several tourist sites and monuments like forts and castles, waterfalls, national parks and many more, but we have failed to harness the potentials of these man-made forts and castles, as well as natural endowments. Ghana has more slave monuments than any African country, but we have failed to maintain and market them as the best tourist destinations until launching the Year of Return in 2019.

The depreciating state of the Christiansburg, Cape Coast, Elmina and Anomabu castles, as well as the slave ports at Assin Praso and Assin Manso, and the Salaga Slave market, is too glaring. Lands around these monuments have either been encroached on, are sites for dumping waste, or sites for open defecation. Currently, the National Theatre and Accra International Conference Centre are not in good shape as centres of tourism.  What will be the fate of the National Cathedral should it be constructed?

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