Belt and Road… Reminds me of…

There’s a song by one of my favourite RnB artists Usher, called “You remind me“. In it, Usher tells a new girlfriend that she’s like a previous girlfriend that he fell in love with, who treated him badly. His question is therefore a simple one – to date or not to date his new girlfriend?

I was recently asked to review a paper about the implications for African countries of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As I read the paper, like Usher, the idea of the Initiative reminded me of something… The Commonwealth.

A bit of background – as a Kenyan and (since 2008) a Brit, the Commonwealth has been a major feature of my national history and identity. Because of the Commonwealth, I was able to get my first job in the UK Government, despite not having a British passport at the time. And once I was in Goverment, many of the issues I worked on – from agricultural trade treaties to climate change policies –  were subjects of discussion and agreement by Commonwealth Heads of State at biennial meetings. Might the Belt and Road become a feature in years to come for Chinese and participating countries’ populations?

Like the Belt and Road, the Commonwealth had and still has several explicit, practical objectives. For instance, smooth people to people movement across countries – like my joining the UK government! -; freer and cheaper trade of goods across member countries; increased cultural understanding; and so on. The Commonwealth Games are held every four years, the Silk Road boasts a grand rallya cykathlon, and a grape festival amongst its fun activities.

That said, the Commonwealth and the Belt and Road have very different histories. The Commonwealth was formally created through a 1949 declaration, around the time that many countries around the world demanded independence from Britain’s colonial rule. In contrast, the Belt and Road has a longer, and much more varied history. It has been a broad proposal on the table since October 2013, and draws on the history of the Silk Road – a trade route that opened and closed several times, and was dominated by different groups at different times. It was mostly a route with economic purposes – trade – but there was also some political and cultural coordination, though none to the extent of an agreed document between the member countries. Indeed, even now, no coordinated multilateral agreements are being promoted via the Belt and Road. Instead, the Belt and Road seems to involve mostly a series of bilateral agreements – some of which will be stronger and more elaborate than others. In addition, the Belt and Road initiative has practical elements not present in the Commonwealth – for instance infrastructure investment, and new funds and banks dedicated to support this. The Commonwealth has no financial institutions.

But however accurate or inaccurate the comparison, like Usher, the question for African countries is a simple one. Given past experience, should African countries engage with the Silk Road or not?

While some African countries have benefitted well from Commonwealth agreements, for instance for trading agricultural goods, the Commonwealth has impacted considerably less on others, and some impacts have even been criticised. Some argue that the Commonwealth has had a negative impact on human rights in member countries. In 2013, Gambia even decided to exit the commonwealth.

Thus, the potential for positive and negative impacts from the Belt and Road Initiative is certainly there. So if African countries are to learn from their experience of the Commonwealth, perhaps they can still date the new girlfriend in town – the Belt and Road – but think carefully about what they want to get out of the relationship and how to make it happen. For instance, do they want more trade with China or other countries on the Silk route? Do they want finance, or just political and cultural exchanges? Do they want to coordinate with other African neighbours?

Comparisons might not be accurate or useful, but having a reminder of the past can be a helpful guide to ensuring a better future. I do hope African countries will learn from the past as they engage with the Belt and Road initiative, so that it really is prosperous and in their favour.

What’s the point of dating otherwise?

September 2016

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