Opinion: Is China really helping Africa?

There is no doubt that relations between China and African countries are becoming ever more intertwined and important. In what has now become an annual tradition to visit Africa as a priority continent at the beginning of the year, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to five African countries illustrates the close relationship. China’s top foreign envoy has, in each of his meetings with top Government representatives, consistently referred to the Forum of China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the commitments President Xi made during the last forum in 2015 to support Africa with 60 billion US dollars of investment, and the importance of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for China-Africa relations.
But what does intertwined and closer government ties actually mean for both Africa and China? In reality, more links is progress, but it also means more complexity. Because the most important thing to remember is Africa is a continent not a single country and we must examine China’s relationship on a country by country basis.

Why? The five countries Minister Wang has visited this year are as diverse as the 54 countries on the entire continent: Madagascar is a lush island in the east; Congo-Brazzaville to the west has a small population as well as rainforests to protect; Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world – a former socialist country, Zambia its neighbor relies on copper for its development, while Nigeria is also English speaking but Africa’s most populous country.

Each of these countries has a different relationship with China. It’s not enough to say the relationship is “good”, “strong” or “bad”, any more than you can say that about China’s relationship with any one European country or Asian country. Each African country has managed relationships with the Chinese government, businesses and other organizations that have entered it differently to date, based on its own history, current physical and human resources, and its vision for future growth and development.

Any relationship is a “two way street” and how African countries benefit from their ties with China depend as much on China as they do on how the governments, businesses and organizations of the different African countries also act.

In fact, it is an established principle of good global cooperation that support provided from one country to another should have “country ownership” at its core. Put another way, this means that the government of the country at the time should be able to set the priorities for China’s support, and should record and manage the support publicly (e.g. a public budget).

Does China really ensure “country ownership” in African countries, then? In some ways yes, in other ways even more can be done.

For example, while African countries strongly welcome China’s finance for infrastructure and industrialization, many African countries would like China’s future support to be more flexible in terms of how it can be used – for instance, so that aid or loans can be used for even more purposes. There are some issues the Chinese government does not typically support through overseas aid or loans, for example education, or non-emergency health programs. In the future building human capital in terms of a healthier more educated work force might be just as important as building the physical infrastructure which China has proved so successful at. The more flexible China is to trying new ideas for support, the better.

Many African countries would also like China’s support to have less “conditions”. I don’t mean conditions like improve democracy or change internal policy – which many OECD governments advocate as part of their aid programs. The conditions I’m referring to is that China’s support often requires Chinese labor and parts/components to be used, rather than local employees and suppliers. This is understandable and partly explains why Chinese operators can deliver projects so speedily – the workers are familiar with the projects from having delivered them at home! But building the country’s strength to stand on its own two feet will be aided by employing and promoting local staff, and using local suppliers, and to a greater and lesser extent this is happening in many places.

When interacting with the Chinese government and inviting in Chinese businesses and non-governmental organizations, most African governments are working hard to deliver their own development visions, based on their country’s circumstances. China is working very hard to help. But as time goes on, delivering development will become more and more complex and will need to be tailored to the needs circumstances of the specific country. I know China is up to the challenge.‍

This article was originally published by China Global Television Network (CGTN).

January 2017

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