Monday, January 25, 2010

The West or China: Who Should Save Africa?

I hate using the word “save” because it smacks of patronization, but I think it encapsulates the intense outside assistance that the continent needs to get its economic engines going. So who should be their Clark Kent?

The US and other developed nations have been in Africa for decades, trying various development efforts but making little headway. On the other hand, you have the Chinese, the new kids on the block. I’d read a bit about the Chinese in Africa before coming, but it wasn’t until I got here that I realized their pervasiveness. Even in Mozambique, not one of China’s most favored nations (Sudan, Angola, and Congo), it’s not hard to run into them. They’ve helped construct the Mozambiquean Parliament building, the Foreign Ministry, and are currently building the new national soccer stadium, just to name a few. Not only are the companies Chinese, but so are the cheap Chinese workers they bring. In the mornings I run past these workers waiting for their shifts to start, and just outside our TechnoServe building a Chinese construction project is going up. Rumors go around that the Chinese workers are convicted criminals, but it’s more likely that they are just a part of China’s need to feed its growth and keep unemployment down.

I’ve asked various people about the West vs. China question. Development agencies like USAID and the World Bank come into African nations and tag stipulations of “democracy” and “transparency” with almost any inflow of money. Some people argue that it’s almost colonialism in itself, and others have pointed out that we are treating them like children. The Chinese, they say, don’t try to impose their ideology – they are just here to do business, like adults.

In some respects I agree with them. True to Chinese form, when they say something will get done, it gets done. My friend Gerson of CLUSA said he had talked to a Chinese contractor, who told him something to the extent of, “I would love to employ Mozambiqueans, but my guys already know the system and work twice as hard as the locals. It’s just not cost-effective.” I also recently spoke with a former USAID employee, who I won’t name here. Commenting on USAID strategy, she said, “Nothing is ever done for the right reason. You don’t plant bananas in a particular place because they grow well there. There’s always an ulterior motive.” USAID is in the same building as TechnoServe, and there’s a large banner out front showing the Mozambiquean and US flags, with the words “25 Years of Progress & Partnership.” I know development is a difficult thing, but it seems odd to me that USAID would brag about being in a country for a quarter of century, when the nation still remains one of the 10 poorest on the planet. For an entertaining slight of development, read "Bring on the Chinese".

They have a point, and the evidence provides a compelling argument, so I’m not completely decided. However, I’m leaning in the opposite direction. It seems to me that China is here for more than business – in some cases they are using manipulation for exploitation (Admittedly, the US’s record on this front is too spotless). For evidence check their funding of the war in Darfur. Rather than training African workers up and promoting knowledge transfer, China seems only interested in the bottom line. I talked recently with a couple of experienced TechnoServe leaders. They explained that the Chinese investments do in fact come with stipulations – tax breaks or free land, the latter of which they are getting in the Beira Corridor in the middle of the country.

One of the two TNS leaders, a Mozambiquean who actually previously worked for the government, said he saw no problem with treating the African governments like children – they are acting like children. He said that politicians often spend more time in the air than in their offices. The ceiling on government salaries has caused their travel per diem to skyrocket. The Director of the National Agricultural Survey, he said, had just a year or two ago requested over 400 days of travel in a year! Either that’s a blatant attempt at corruption or this guy should be on Heroes. In The Bottom Billion, a book I just finished, Paul Collier continues this thought by arguing that we’ve already went through the experiment of giving African countries a huge, no-strings-attached injection of budget support (i.e. aid). It’s called oil. He cites Nigeria, which has received around $280 billion in oil revenue over the past 30 years. Most of it has ended up in the government’s budget. How are the Joe Everydays of Nigeria doing? Exactly. Collier goes through each country that has had a similar large injection and finds no difference in growth rates between countries with and without large inflows.

For a big China fan like myself, this talk may come as a surprise to some people. The verdict is still out in my mind, so over the next few months I’m sure I’ll get to talk more about it and perhaps share with you if I find anything interesting.

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