China-Africa Learning: Take-away lessons


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Last week I posted some reflections from the field visit portion of last month’s Experience-Sharing Program on Development between China and Africa.  The program covered key aspects of China’s development experience including agricultural and rural reforms, infrastructure development, the process of opening-up the economy through trade and foreign direct investment, and China’s growing engagement with Africa.  David Dollar has also posted some thoughts about the program.

Following the field visits, the African officials came back to Beijing for a wrap-up session during which they reflected on what they had seen and learned. Common themes that emerged from their comments included the importance of strong leadership, commitment to development, ownership, and adaptation as being critical elements of successful reform.  They also noted the strong emphasis that China has put on developing good infrastructure and on orderly rural-urban migration.  Participants were also struck by the generally positive attitude they encountered toward Africa.  One noted that “Western donors and investors see Africa as a land of problems. The Chinese see it as a land of opportunity”. 

On the question of China as a possible role model for Africa, several of the Chinese officials who spoke at the workshop stressed the need for every country to chart its own course, and to not be overly influenced by advice from others.  One official noted “In our development we received a lot of advice from the World Bank, the IMF, and other outside experts; we listened to what they told us, but then we made our own choices, adapting their advice to our conditions.  African countries can perhaps learn some lessons from us, but please do not try to copy us.  You need to find you own way to develop your economies. We can help you, but you need to be in the drivers’ seat”

This advice was clearly not lost, as one of the African officials summed up his take-away from the program as follows.  “What I conclude from this visit is that our path to development is not a question of choosing between the Washington consensus and the Beijing consensus.  Rather, it's about developing our own African consensus, wherein we can draw on the lessons of both the West and China.  Both have some useful advice to offer, but both have also made mistakes.  We need to draw on the best of both models, but also to keep our eyes open and to avoid the mistakes that they have made.”  

Let’s hear your thoughts.  What do you see as the main lessons that Africa can learn from China?  And what about the other direction;  are there some lessons that China might learn from Africa?



Philip E. Karp

Lead Knowledge Management Officer, Social, Urban, Rural, and Resilience Global Practice

Join the Conversation

B.C. Albaghetti
June 29, 2008

Speaking of not being overly influenced by advice from
others, the Imboulou dam in the Congo comes to mind.
About decade ago or so the World Bank decided against
financing the construction of this dam. Nonetheless,
the same China that is a recipient of World Bank help
provided US$280 million for that project 5 or 6 years
ago. (There is something a bit ironic about this.) In a
few years, if not before, the dam is expected to double
Congolese electricity generation.

At any rate, whereas the Chinese investment adventure
apparently has been successful in countries like Congo,
it is much less so in others like Angola. Generalizing
the entire continent in China's economical expansion
into parts of Africa over the last decade might be, at
least this moment, a not-so-subtle mistake.

James Hewitt
July 01, 2008

The hydroelectric projects in Congo (Imboulou) and Ghana (Bui) which China is building (the latter with World Bank involvement) are the contemporary equivalent of "White Elephants" - monuments to corruption which tend [a] flagrantly to ignore their social and environmental impact (which in the case of Bui is so great that only China is willing to be involved) [b] quite cynically endebt the host countries, and [c] are not needed (the Inga HEP would more than suffice if the two Congos co-operated, Ghana now has plenty of oil, neither country charges or collects electricity tariffs at levels which reflect the long run marginal cost of production - grossly inflating demand). Plus ça change, plus c'et la même chose..

Charlotte Kautt
July 02, 2008

In the North we tend to focus too much on China's economic interest in Africa and the problems this might cause for long-term development of African economies. I have just come back from the general conference organised by the European Association of Development and Training Institutes in Geneva which conveyed a strong consensus that the North needs to engage the South more on an equal basis in order to meet the challenges we will all face by climate change (e.g. food production, displacement and migration, energy solutions etc.). What struck me by Philip Karp's article is the different approach of China in engaging Africa that could be worth pondering over.

Philip Karp
July 02, 2008


It is true that many in Africa see China's approach to the continent as being quite different than what they experience from the North. Chinese officials are in fact quite insistent on not using the term "donor" to apply to their official development assistance engagements in Africa, rather preferring to use the term "partner". However, the view from the Africa side is by no means uniform, with a good deal of enthusiasm balanced by a certain degree of wariness.

One disticntion that I think is clear, though, is the generally positive/optimistic approach that China takes toward Africa, in comparison to the approach of many countries from the North.

July 03, 2008

I suppose that by different approach you mean the commonly espoused idea of China's view of Africa as an investment opportunity, along with an apparently neutral policy towards the various governments and regimes of the region (as spelled out in the declaration of the 2006 FOCAC summit). Such approach, described as a strategic partnership by the Chinese, is seen as a win-win arrangement by many Africans.

But, as well argued in the comment to which you respond, the African view of China's economical expansion is far from being uniformly positive across the continent. Zambia is a clear case in point. I agree that the blog article of Mr Karp is worth pondering; I also believe, however, it might be a bit too rosy.

A realistic, nose-on-the-ground account of China's politico-economical adventure in Africa, "La Chinafrique" by Michel Beuret and Serge Michel, was published last May (Paris : Grasset, 2008, 348 pp). Despite its edgy title --resembling the term describing France's relationship with Africa, Françafrique, first used by Houphouët-Boigny in a positive manner but which later took the rapacious sense given by Verschave to subsume his criticisms of France's African policies-- this book details both positive and negative aspects of the Chinese partnership in different regions of Africa.

Of relevance to the issue of North-South relations, Mssrs Beuret and Michel also examine some of the difficulties found by the Chinese in countries more democratic than China herself. They contrast this to the views presented in "China and Africa 1956-2006" (Beijing : China Intercontinental Press, 2006, 116 pp.), a book written by Yuan Wu of the Division on African Studies, Institute of West Asian and African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which must be considered as having received official government approval/imprimatur. In the English translation (by Li Guoqing), Mr Wu excoriates democracy for supposedly exacerbating tensions in Africa, but concludes that "fortunately, the wave of democratization has started weakening." Oil, Sudan, and the massacres in Darfur are part and parcel of the strategic partnership.

Sunil Mathrani
July 24, 2008

The World Bank Group is not involved in Bui in any manner whatsoever. Any projects in which we are involved must adhere to our safeguards, which the World Commission on Dams has cited as the safest.

July 24, 2008

Hmm, would you care to comment on the Akosombo HEP dam, funded by the IBRD, and its environmental and socio-economics impact ?

July 25, 2008

Re:Daming Africa

In response to the comment about the Bank involvement in China's construction of hydroelectric dams in Africa, Sunil Mathrani (07/24/2008) says: "Any projects in which we are involved must adhere to our safeguards, which the World Commission on Dams has cited as the safest."

His absolute assertion may be right now, but was it like that just a few years ago? Not really. In fact, that commission was created as a way to ease out of the breakdown of the dialogue on construction of dams worldwide between NGOs and the Bank in the 80s and 90s.

Mr Mathrani neglects to clarify that the final report of the commission was released less than 8 years ago. It is true that during Wolfensohn's tenure the Bank got its act (more) together on the issue of safeguards but it's still essentially picking up some of the pieces of some of its projects.

July 25, 2008

Good point. Let's see what Mr Mathrani responds.

The dam at the Akosombo gorge on the Volta River in Ghana (and the planet's largest artificial lake it created) is a relevant example of the 'albo-paquidermic' African projects of the Bank. I shall not list the disastrous environmental, social, and even public health problems caused by the dam; instead, read in how a 2001 newsletter of the U.S. embassy in Accra describes them (on p. 2), keeping in mind the less than stellar interest of the State Department on African social and environmental problems.

In addition, the Akosombo dam is particularly relevant to Mr Mathrani's absolute assertion, since he was involved in the recently approved Bank project (P074191) to give money to the Volta region electricity groups and help Ghana out of the crisis gripping it for more than a decade (leading to power rationing in 2006-2007).

sunil mathrani
July 31, 2008

Akosombo was designed in the late 1950s and built in the mid 1960s, nearly 50 years ago now. At that time nowhere in the world did environmental and social aspects of dam construction get the attention and scrutiny they deserve. The environmental and social shortcomings of Akosombo are well known and extensively studied. Over the years VRA has done much to remedy them, but clearly some are irreversible. Much has changed in the world since then and new hydro schemes that the World Bank considers for funding are subject to rigorous scrutiny far beyond anything applied even 20 years ago, never mind 50 years in the past. Regrettably not all governments apply such high standards in projects they undertake without World Bank involvement. Below you will find a link to the current Bank safeguards policies.…

August 12, 2008

The formal age of the Akosombo Hydroelectric Project is now 42 years because the first stage of the project (i.e., the dam and four generating units) was commissioned in 1966. The logical round off of 42 is 40 rather than 50.

Now, putting aside mathematical intricacies, Mr Mathrani claims “at that time nowhere in the world” the environmental and social aspects of dam construction received the attention and scrutiny they deserve. He ought to read ‘Dams in Africa : An Inter-disciplinary Study of Man-made Lakes in Africa’ (N. Ruben and W. M. Warren eds., Routledge, 1968). It consists of papers presented at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London during the 1965-1966 session, making them contemporary to the Akosombo project. In Chapter VI, R. Steel discusses the prospects and some of the problems of the dam. Despite his clear sympathy to the project Steel identified a number of problems, two of which are relevant to the bumptious emptiness of “nowhere in the world” of Mr Mathrani. One was the (forced) resettlement of 80,000 residents; the other was the public health dangers associated with the project. Not only he deemed these dangers serious, but also noted : “These have been fully investigated by scientific and medical groups.” As indeed predicted, the Volta lake resulted in large increases of schistosomiases.

Mr Mathrani fails to mention that the Bank's adherence to social safeguard policies is a relatively recent attitude. This can be seen in ‘Putting People First’, a World Bank publication first released in 1985, whose second edition in 1991 discusses (among many other things) adverse effects of development. Regarding the forced displacement of populations, M. Cernea writes (1991/22) : “the availability of knowledge-on-the-shelf about involuntary resettlement exercised hardly any influence on the governments and agencies [...]. Development policies of most governments and major agencies, including the World Bank, did not formulate explicit demands that involuntary resettlement operations be carried out under more stringent criteria based on social science knowledge; displacement of people was usually dealt with last, as an afterthought.” For the Bank, the change to addressing social issues linked to involuntary resettlement was a gradual process; according to Cernea : “This happened initially in 1979-80 (when the first statement was issued) and was followed in 1986, 1988, and 1990 with new, strengthened policy papers”. See…

Rusty Cheetah
February 09, 2010

I read with great interest the exchange, but failed to access to the US Embassy link elbedded in Yves's message (about Akosombo dam's environmental impact), since the link seems corrupt. As a former WB safeguards specialist in the Bank's internal unit and newly appointed leader of the finalization of safeguards work on a large dam project in Cameroon, I am interested in anything that looks like - even remotely - a serious/scientific ex-post assessment of actual environmental and social impacts of dams built without safeguards.

Come to mind Akosombo (Ghana), Garafiri (Guinée), Bui (Ghana), Imboulou (Congo).

Any lead from any of the reader/contributor to this - old by 21st century standards - forum will be highly appreciated. Regards and congratulations for a polite and constructive debate to all.