Monday, September 22, 2014

5 takeaways from the ‘China & Development in Africa’ panel

On September 18, 2014, AfricanDevJobs and Cowries and Rice co-hosted a panel discussion entitled “China & Development in Africa: What China’s Engagement with Africa Means for the Development Sector & Professionals” held at Impact Hub in Washington, D.C.

The panel, moderated by Jackson M’vunganyi, host of Voice of America’s Upfront Africa, featured speakers who spoke about the intersection of development and the China-Africa relationship. They included Ambassador David Shinn, co-author of China and Africa: A Century of Engagement and Professorial Lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University, Kelley Page Jibrell, Global Strategy Consultant and lecturer of International Business at Howard University, and Jyhjong Hwang, Research Assistant at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ China Africa Research Initiative. All of the panelists provided different perspectives on the growing involvement of China in Africa – a relationship that has major implications for not only Africa but the entire world.

Here are some key takeaways from the panel:

1. China’s involvement in Africa must be framed within its proper context

As the moderator noted, it is imperative that any discussion about Africa first take into consideration that Africa is a continent with fifty-four sovereign states. China itself is a huge, multi-ethnic country. Any discussion of the interaction between the continent of Africa and the country of China must account for the different “Africas” and “Chinas” interacting. Prof. Jibrell observed that “African businesspeople find that what’s great about doing business with China is that it’s just business. What’s not great about doing business with China is that… it’s just business.”

Whether Fujianese shopkeepers selling to villagers in rural Namibia or Ethiopian ministers dealing with officials from the Export-Import Bank of China, there are many ways that China and Africa are involved with each other.

2. The onus is on African governments to demand more from Chinese investors and businesses

As Africa’s top trade partner and a major provider of infrastructure (both projects and financing), China is often seen as the actor that is directing China-Africa interactions. However, many people do not see that African governments have much to say about what sort of projects China can carry out in their country. Amb. Shinn highlighted this when he explained that a Chinese company was contracted to build a cheap, poorly-made road at the request of the Angolan government to shore up political support in the lead up to elections. The road was not designed to last a long time, as after the elections, there was no real need to maintain it. In the words of Amb. Shinn “you get what you pay for.”

African governments must safeguard their environments and labor when engaging in business with all investors. Amb. Shinn observed that Chinese businesses have been “doing better with regard to the environment because they do not want issues to come back and haunt them later,” though labor issues are still a major challenge. Hwang pointed out that Chinese bosses do not consider their treatment of laborers as abusive, since that is often how Chinese farmers are treated in China. Thus, African governments need to not only enforce and/or enact labor laws to ensure the protection of their citizens within their borders, but “pressure Chinese businesses to do better.”

3. Comparing U.S. and China’s involvement in Africa today to old Cold War politics is flawed

Often, the U.S. and China’s involvement in Africa is framed as akin to a Cold War-era competition. However, Amb. Shinn made it clear that the two are incomparable primarily because “economic development is there.” While “there are areas of competition,” as noted by Amb. Shinn, Prof. Jibrell added that there is “no Cold War mentality because there is no fight over who is going to own Africa.”

4. China is making strides in terms of education but not knowledge transfer

According to Amb. Shinn, there are two broad initiatives that China is using to bolster African education (and Chinese soft power): 5,000 scholarships provided annually to African students to study for five years in China; and the establishment of dozens of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms at universities and schools on the continent. The scholarships in particular are impressive, as the United States government has no similar program.

However, in terms of how Chinese organizations operate in Africa, there is a noticeable lack of knowledge and technical transfer. While Chinese businesses can be quite efficient, Prof. Jibrell pointed out that they are weak at transferring their knowledge to local staff and building local capacity. Many firms are keen to make money and/or finish their contract and then leave.

5. Chinese ideas of philanthropy are quite different from the United States

Though panelists could not speak with authority on Chinese philanthropy, Hwang shared her experiences from Taiwan. Essentially, Chinese philanthropy emphasizes helping family over strangers. However, “Africans need to define what philanthropy looks like for them” and other countries must act accordingly. This might be good news for China, as Prof. Jibrell remarked, “Chinese officials are good at listening to what Africans want.”

Cross-posted with AfricanDevJobs

Winslow Robertson is the Founder and Director of Cowries and Rice, a China-Africa strategy consultancy. Cowries and Rice advises in all aspects of the China-Africa relationship, and its services have been used by private companies, individual investors, strategic advisory firms, think tanks, and non-profits. Follow his tweets: @winslow_r

Anita Thompson is the Women and Youth Contributor. She has a heart for strengthening the voices of women and youth in Africa by sharing their stories. Follow her tweets: @salonegal85

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