I recently had the pleasure of accompanying a group of 15 senior officials from East and Southern Africa on a field visit to Guangxi Autonomous Region and Guangdong Province. Prior to the field visit, the officials had spent three days in Beijing at a workshop on China’s development experience. The visit to Guangxi and Guangdong gave them a chance to see the results of China’s reforms for themselves, and to interact with local government officials, farmers, villagers, and entrepreneurs. As one participant noted, “I’ve never been so reminded of the old saying that seeing is believing. I came here a bit skeptical of all of the hype about the Chinese miracle, but now I’ve seen for myself what they have achieved in terms of poverty reduction and development”.
Apart from the formal briefings and visits to farms and factories, the field visits afforded a few light-hearted moments, including an impromptu sing-along led by the Vice Governor of Guangxi Autonomous Region, and a mock-wedding ceremony in a Yao-minority village in Guangxi with two of the African officials serving as grooms.
And the knowledge exchange that took place during the trip was by no means unidirectional. At one point during the visit to Guangxi, a Deputy Minister from Sudan provided the head of the provincial poverty reduction office with a lesson on the difference between income poverty and the grinding destitution that is found in many parts of Africa. “You speak of this as a poor village because many of its residents have incomes below the poverty line. But when I look at this village, I see a good road; I see houses with electricity and television; I see people who are well-dressed; I see a school close to the village; and I imagine that the clinic that we passed has a nurse and medications available. Go to a poor village in my country and people have little or nothing to eat; shelters are made of mud or sticks; there is no electricity or running water; children have to walk many hours to get to school and when they arrive there are often no teachers or books; people die of simple diseases because there is no medicine and no clean water – and sometimes no water at all. That is what real poverty is”.
Also, the African officials did not shy away from addressing some of the more controversial aspects of China’s approach to its engagement in Africa, including its support for corrupt regimes or despotic leaders. During the workshop, one of the African officials offered the following caution to his Chinese counterparts:
“We welcome China’s engagement with Africa. We are looking to you for investment, for trade, and for technical cooperation. But we are also looking to you to do what is right for the people of the countries in which you engage, not just for the current leaders. This is in your interest as well as ours. You are making significant investments in our countries. You need the support of the people of those countries. The current leaders will not be there forever. Some will be gone sooner than you think. If you only engage with them, your investments may be at risk when they are gone.”
I’ll write more about the China-Africa exchange next week, including the lessons and take-aways identified by the African officials. In the meantime, let’s hear from you. What do you think of the growing engagement between China and Africa? And what do you see as the main lessons that African countries can learn from China?
NOTE: The “Experience-Sharing Program on Development between China and Africa” was initiated, financed and sponsored by China’s Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Commerce and the State Council’s Leading Group on Poverty Alleviation. The World Bank Institute, together with the Africa and East Asia & Pacific regions of the World Bank , supported and worked closely with the Chinese Government in organizing the event. Information about the program as well as links to the agenda and to a set of reading materials which provide a variety of perspectives on China-Africa engagement can be found at www.worldbank.org/wbi/china-africa  Click on resources  for links to reading materials.