Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Attending: A discussion on China's future role in Africa

On Wednesday, I dropped by GWU to check out A Discussion on China's Future Role in Africa, where Lula Chen of the Sino-African Institute of Sister Cities International talked about trilateral partnerships between U.S., African, and Chinese cities.

That is not a typo: trilateral partnerships!

I do not know whether trilateral Africa-U.S.-Chinese cooperation is a holy grail or a cosmic evil (there are a not insubstantial amount of people who hate the very idea of that collaboration), but I do know that it is rare. And by rare, I mean I had never heard of it until that point. So obviously, I was quite curious about the topic.

Chen started out by giving a background on Sister Cities International, a post-World War II American program designed to foster citizen diplomacy (ever notice that a lot of U.S. sister cities are in Germany and Japan? I did not until I went to this talk). Then she explained how there were quite a few African cities that wanted more collaboration with the Chinese, and that Sister Cities worked to facilitate that. Also, American cities wanted to attract Chinese investment and used the program as a bridge (hopefully) for future projects.

How did a project work? First, an American city had to initiate it, such as Denver. They would reach out to their Chinese counterparts in Kunming and decide on which sectors they would engage. They would then meet with their African sister-city counterparts in Nairobi and discuss whether there were any possibilities for collaboration within their sectors. Since all three cities are high-altitude cities that deal with water conservation issues, they decided to hold a water-expert exchange as well as renovate a school, fixing up the sanitation system. There are other partnerships between Zomba, Urbana, and Guangzhou; and Osogbo, Asheville/Raleigh, and Xiangyang. All the projects were small in scale and emphasized the specialties of their respective cities (such as composting in Urbana).

A few observations:
  • As others have noted, the less powerful a government official who is on the ground in an African country, the more likely they are to get along with their counterparts in other countries. Since these projects involved municipal officials, these projects were possible, though some officials wanted to elevate things to the level of the state/province, which would have sunk the project. Why? Because the higher up the chain of command one goes, the more that decision-making becomes an issue of national security (and honor). Also, it was not all that easy to get municipal officials from three countries to agree, so imagine the nightmare of elevating that to the governor or ministerial level.
  • One of the most difficult issues was procurement. Since this was a U.S.-led program, there were rather stringent rules on what could be obtained, at what price, at what time, by which vendor. That did not go over well with their partners. That does not mean that the Chinese can get what they want, as they have their own contractors and rules (breaking news: a Chinese aid project is only going to contract out work to Chinese firms), but in comparison I imagine Chinese procurement is faster (though I cannot say for certain, just speculating here). Though, I should emphasize that I do not know whether this project counted as aid, investment, or cultural exchange on the Chinese end, or even if it counted as anything besides a local government project, which would affect procurement.
  • This is not quite a harbinger for things to come at a national level, as these projects were small, localized, and did not involve vast sums of money. 
  • Ms. Chen, who speaks fluent Mandarin and has a security studies background, was pretty crucial to the success of the program. Unless China or an African county have the same sort of talent from which to draw, these sorts of trilateral projects will probably be American (and Chinese-American) led.
  • Very few of the people who attended were curious about Africa-China issues. Most of the discussion related to international development, and some of the China-Africa questions were not of the caliber I had hoped (I had hoped that Amb. Shinn would be there for the event but I did not see him). Still, Ms. Chen was quite knowledgeable about this sort of work in particular, and her observations about broader China-Africa relations were accurate even though she was the first to admit she was not an expert.
  • There were a lot of students at the event, and many of the young men wore ties and jackets. On a Wednesday night. I weep for our nation.

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