Bringing light to the dark continent: Should the West fear or follow China’s development policy south of the Sahara?


By Carli Hetland, Assistant Opinions Editor, MPP ‘13

In recent years, Western journalists have vilified Chinese engagement with Africa, branding a growing Chinese presence through escalating alarmist taglines, such as “Into Africa: China’s Grab for Influence and Oil,” “Arming and Alarming,” and “Will China Rip Africa’s Face Off?”

This writer is not one of them.

No doubt China has made serious missteps in Africa that the Western media has rightly exposed: China has cozied up to African warlords and corroborated with corruptors, and stands accused of “looting” Africa’s resource-rich, extractive industries with inconsistent regard for human rights or environmental standards. Yet China’s presence in Africa has also brought tremendous economic value to the continent in the order of hundreds of billions of dollars.

But is China helping or hurting Africa? A growing body of evidence shows that not only is the Chinese model of development helping, but it is doing so in a more constructive way than the conventional Western aid model.

China is not a traditional donor. Unlike donors of the West, China does not proclaim the praises of democracy, a strong civil society, or the rule of law, nor does it deliver much in the way of health and education infrastructure. Rather, it focuses, maniacally so, on economic development.

But in whose interest is the economic development?

China’s approach to development—delivering assistance in the form of infrastructure, trade and investment, primarily through Chinese contractors—has been widely criticized. Ironically, it is not the Africans who fear the rise of the dragon: it is the West. As revealed in leaked Wikileaks cables, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa called China “an economic competitor with no morals,” and declared “China is not in Africa for altruistic reasons. … China is in Africa primarily for China.”

Yet the Chinese have proven that what is good for China can also be good for Africa. Not only does China have the money to import African goods, but it has also confirmed its commitment to invest in sorely needed infrastructure and private enterprise initiatives.

China is now Africa’s largest trading partner: trade between China and the continent has doubled every three years for the past fifteen years, reaching $120 billion in 2010. Although China has flooded the African market with much cheaper products—a cause of concern to the African entrepreneur but a source of delight to the consumer—China maintains a negative trade balance with Africa.

While a small portion of China’s foreign direct investment is given to unsavoury, politically corrupt regimes, such as Zimbabwe and Angola, this $9B investment in 2010 reached 47 other African countries, spanning the manufacturing, construction, mining, tourism, forestry, fisheries and textiles sectors. China is one of the only countries addressing Africa’s desperate need for infrastructure: Chinese hands have built more than 2,000 km of railways and 3,000 km of highways. According to the Chinese Commerce Ministry website, Chinese companies are signing infrastructure deals worth more than $50 billion a year.

Tales of constant Chinese coercion are misleading. The president of Angola’s now infamous “slap in the face” during a press conference with the Chinese president, was felt around in the world as he remarked, “China is not our only friend.” If not China, Brazil and India are eager courters waiting in the wings.

Undoubtedly, China’s aid and development strategy is not entirely altruistic; China is in Africa for China. But what form of aid truly is altruistic? Why is the West so quick to assume that if the intent is not explicitly humanitarian that it becomes exploitive? While most Western aid programs claim to be altruistic, the reality is a bit murkier. Long has the West recognized that aid brings influence. Consider the main recipients of American foreign aid: Over the last ten years, one-third of USAID has gone to Israel and Egypt, an amount that is nearly five times higher than that which went to the whole of Africa. And this is for pure altruistic reasons? I think not.

While the Chinese must continue to improve their standing as a global citizen in Africa, the West certainly can learn from Chinese aid policy. With the exception of the US PEPFAR HIV/AIDS initiative, most Western aid programs have had a less-than-stellar performance record. Over$1 trillion in development aid has poured into Africa over the last half a century, with little to show for it aside from rising poverty rates. Policies like “trade, not aid” and breaking down tariffs and barriers, particularly for agricultural products, is one step to make the West’s development policy a little more like China’s.

After all, when it comes to poverty reduction, who best to learn from than the Chinese? They looked a lot like Africa just over 30 years ago when 60 percent of mainland Chinese lived under the poverty line. Fast forward to 2011 and this has been reduced to 1 in 10. Lessons in poverty fighting might possibly be the best thing China could bring into Africa. Let’s not fear the dragon.