China's engagement in Africa increases – and so does the debate around it

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ImageThe issue of China-Africa engagement has been in the headlines this week as leaders from China and from across the African continent gathered in Egypt for the Fourth Heads of State Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) where Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced China’s latest round of pledges of development support to Africa, including US$10 billion in concessional loans over the next three years. This latest round of pledges will no doubt further accelerate China’s growing importance as a source of trade, investment, and aid to African countries.

The magnitude of China’s engagement is indeed impressive. Two-way trade between China and Africa has grown at more than 40 percent per year since the year 2000, reaching nearly US$107 billion in 2008. Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa is also growing rapidly, topping US$5.4 billion last year, according to China’s Minister of Commerce, and more than 1,600 Chinese companies are reported to have invested in Africa. China has been particularly significant as a source of financing for investment in infrastructure, having announced commitments just shy of US$16 billion over the period 2001-2006, according to study released last year by the World Bank’s Africa Region (pdf).

China’s rapidly growing engagements in Africa have been the source of considerable debate – representing some rather divergent perspectives. These differing views – which one researcher who closely follows this topic has described as “competing narratives” (pdf) – were played out at a conference I attended here in Beijing late last month. Organized by the China-DAC Study Group, the conference focused on development partnerships for poverty reduction, looking both at experiences from China and from Africa. With a number of African government officials, students, civil society representatives, and researchers participating, together with Chinese counterparts and representatives of donor agencies and international organizations, the conference offered a forum for presentation of a rather diverse range of views and perspectives – reflective of the broader debate on China-Africa engagement that is taking place on the African continent, in the West, and to a lesser extent in China itself.

One view, represented by many African governments, warmly welcomes China’s increased role and visibility, its focus on infrastructure, its track record of rapid project implementation, and its stated policy of non-interference and absence of conditionality. Indeed, several respected African leaders have been very visible and vocal in positively differentiating China’s approach from that of traditional donors.

At the same time, some other African governments, as well as civil society organizations in Africa have raised concerns about environmental and social standards, quality of imported goods, heavy reliance on Chinese workers and suppliers, and lack of transparency.

Turning to Africa’s traditional development partner countries and organizations, views of China’s role have ranged from cautious optimism, to wariness, to outright hostility, in a few cases. Issues and concerns voiced from these quarters include China’s support for repressive and/or undemocratic regimes; lack of attention to debt sustainability; lack of coordination; and questions about accountability.

The official view from the Chinese Government, and one that is shared by many Chinese researchers, and indeed by the general public, is that China is making important contributions to African development, offering an approach to cooperation that is selfless, demand-driven, based on mutual respect and understanding, effectively integrates, trade, investment, and aid, and gives priority attention to fast and efficient delivery of promised projects and infrastructure.

Some of my Chinese friends and colleagues who work on China-Africa issues have been quite perplexed by the divergent views, and in particular by some of the criticism of China’s engagements. I have pointed out to them, as I did in my remarks at the conference, that the same phenomenon holds true, but to an even larger degree, with respect to the programs and policies of Africa’s traditional development partners. From academic publications, to internal reviews, to demonstrations in the streets, both in Africa and in the Western capitals, the debate on the policies, activities, and impacts of World Bank and other donor assistance programs in Africa has gone on for many years with a divergence of views that is even more striking than in the case of China’s engagements. So the fact that similar debate is now taking place with respect to China’s development partnerships is not surprising and is in many respects simply a reflection of China’s growing role and importance.

Having said that, it is also true that the absence of publicly available information about levels and distribution of China’s assistance to Africa, and the limited number of available case studies and evaluations of China’s development projects in African countries probably adds to the level of speculation and debate. In my remarks at the conference, I noted that it was ironic that a fellow panelist, from the Chinese Academy of Social Science, had to cite World Bank estimates, rather than Chinese Government sources, in talking about levels and dynamics of Chinese aid to Africa.

My own view is that China’s growing engagement is good for Africa, is good for China, and indeed is also good for traditional development partners like the World Bank. In addition to providing badly needed sources of financing, trade, and investment, China offers a number of development lessons that are quite relevant to African countries. There are also things that the World Bank and other traditional donors can learn from China in terms of speed and efficiency of project implementation, and effective integration of trade, aid, and investment. Moreover, as was pointed out a number of times by African attendees at last month’s conference, the emergence of China as a major player in African development offers African countries a choice.

However, in order for African countries to take full advantage of that choice, and to be fully in the driver’s seat in their relations with the Chinese Government and investors, it will be important for them to have more complete information about what is on offer in terms of levels and conditions of assistance, and on the real terms of the various commercial deals that China is bringing to the Table. This is one area where China can perhaps do a better job in translating the lessons it has learned as a recipient of international assistance into its own engagements with other developing countries.


Philip E. Karp

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

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