Book review: Inside Out

The front cover of the book

Book review

Title: Inside Out

Author: Sam Mensah

Year of Publication: 2021

Number of Pages: 337

Reviewer: Joshua Worlasi Amlanu

INSIDE OUT is a book distinctively authored drawing the reader back in time into the life of Sam Mensah, a key player in the modern-day financial architecture Ghana is enjoying today, and his key role played over a decade at the Ministry of Finance and Ghana’s financial sector, which first started in the private sector.

From chapter one to three, the book, which is an autobiography and memoir, tells of the humble beginnings of the Dr. Mensah at Agona Swedru through to his school days in Adisadel College, from where he entered university and studied political science to the post-graduate level, not leaving out his keen love for music, spending half of his life in the night clubs of Accra as an active musician.

The book tells of a dramatic turn in career path, with a decision to become a financial economist for which he decided to do an MBA and PhD in Finance.

He wrote with the expectation that in some small way, the lessons from a 10-year involvement with the Ministry of Finance, will enhance the efficiency of government. It highlights the inner workings of the Ministry through the various departments.

The book further underscores the economic condition of the country under the two major political parties, National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP), examining the ideology of both parties, as gravitating towards a comfortable center, away from the left and right entrenched positions.

Interestingly, its reminiscences Ghana under the NDC during 1992-2000, which had the closest relationship with the Bretton-Woods institutions, religiously espousing and implementing the prescriptions of the Washington Consensus which revolved around neo-liberal ideas such as privatization and the liberalization of markets.

However, the NPP whose natural home should be the Breton-Woods institutions was the first government in Ghana since 1983 to take a deliberate decision to exit the IMF’s financial support.

In breaking down the entrenched ideological positions of both NDC and NPP, the author is of the view that the political system is more clientelist in nature, like many other African countries. This have been evident in practice, when policy lurches from one extreme to another not because of ideological differences but because of the overriding need to gain political advantage.

What is at stake is not political ideology but the control of the state’s patronage machinery that makes it possible to distribute the spoils of power to the clientele of a political party.

Exclusively, readers are taken through the life of a Minister of Finance, whose typical working day is about 12-15 hours, separate from time of receiving visitors seeking to discuss matters at “home”. Finance Ministers, who are also MPs, are desperately trying to juggle their time between Parliament, Cabinet, the Ministry and numerous calls to proceed to the Presidency for emergency discussions.

Bring to light the unsung heroes of the government machinery, the book points to the efforts of the civil servants who serve the ministers. It recollects the system wide initiatives at Civil Service; National Institutional Renewal Programme (1994-2001) including the Civil Service Performance Improvement Programme (1995-2004) and the establishment of Ministry of Public Sector Reform (2005-2007). Despite these reforms, the organizational structure and management practices of each ministry remained essentially unchanged.

The Book reflects on the author’s role of ‘Technical Advisor’ at the Ministry of Finance. Interestingly, it dives deep into the tensions between directors of the Ministry and technical or policy advisors. First of all, the advisor is perceived to be interfering with the normal flow of work. Ordinarily, the workflow goes through the Director of a division to Chief Director, Deputy Minister and the Minister.

However, Ministers tend to work much more closely with their advisors, often without the knowledge of the Director who would normally be in charge of the subject matter. A series of such by-pass assignments are deemed enough to create mistrust between the Advisor and the directors of the Ministry, and the advisor would sooner or later be labeled as a nuisance.

Many advisors have complained about being left out of the Ministry’s key activities including document distribution and meetings. The consequences can be devastating, and many advisors have quit in frustration because they did not feel relevant to the Ministry.

However, the author adopted a strategy in maneuvering the skirmishes with a few directors in his early days at the Ministry. For instance, the author embraced a strategy of consultation on ideas with directors in the ministry before the minister; although it was a delicate balance between loyalty to the minister and loyalty to colleagues, as it became a necessity to be aware of this sensitivity throughout his stay.

The Book points out the authors role of being a well-positioned Technical Advisor, an asset to the ministry, by working closely with directors which provided maximum opportunity for the transfer of know-how to the Ministry, however, advisors should be used very sparingly in order to give the career civil servants the space to develop to their full capacity.

“I have learned a lot from being in government. I am a much better person and professional because of my experience in government. Not too many professionals get the opportunity I had to be of service to my country. Indeed, in my view this is the best job I could ever have asked for. I achieved these results because I met Ministers who gave me the opportunity and space to make a contribution.

I also met professionals who accepted me as a member of the team and gave me the support I needed. I hope that my experience would inspire professionals and executives in the private sector to provide their services to government. A formalized exchange programme that promotes exchanges of personnel between the civil service and the private sector would help close the knowledge and productivity gap between the public and the private sector.

“Ten years at the Ministry of Finance has been a humbling experience in development planning and management. To borrow the words of William Easterly, development economics since World War II has been an “elusive quest for growth”. There are hard choices to be made. Outcomes of policy choices are not easily predictable. And there are many uncontrollable external shocks that can derail the most carefully designed policies.

Structures must be in place to enable decisions to be made with as much information as possible in order to reduce the margin of error. A sound understanding of the incentive effects of alternative policy choices is necessary to achieve desired outcomes. Hopefully, I have succeeded in conveying some of the complexity of economic development in these pages.”

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