As colonial and nationalist governments pursued small-scale development in mid-century northern Ghana, so-called ‘voluntary’, ‘communal’, or ‘self-help’ labor became a key determinant of funding. District records and oral histories show how colonial officials, chiefs, and party politicians alternately cast unpaid labor as a way to cut costs, a catalyst for new forms of politics, and an expression of local cohesion. This article extends analysis of ‘self-help’ beyond articulations of and debates about national policy, examining daily negotiations over budgeting and building. It follows two chiefs who used their ability to raise labor to navigate a rapidly changing political landscape. The line between coercion and voluntarism was rarely clear, nor were the meanings of labor fixed for administrators, chiefs, or their constituents. These local actors created the circumstances for successive governments to frame unpaid labor as a legitimate demand on rural citizens.