Speech: Caught in between the West vs China – can Africa rise to the play?

Good afternoon everyone.

The title of the keynote I’ve been asked to give to you today is “caught in between the West vs China – can Africa rise to the play?”

The way I interpret this is how African countries – via communications professionals like yourselves in this room – can carve out a distinct African perspective within economic and political narratives dominated by “China” and “the West”.

Today I want to share with you three ideas for how to achieve this.

But first, let me introduce myself briefly, so that you can understand why The Nerve Africa kindly invited me to be here today, and then I’ll have a question for you all.

My name is Hannah Ryder, I live in Beijing, China, and I was born in Kenya.  I lived there until I was ten, and then moved to the UK which is why I sound like this. I studied as an economist and then started my career in the UK as a civil servant, focused on international development and climate change. Over 12 years, through my work and personal life, I travelled back to Kenya frequently but also to over 40 other countries, and as I travelled especially in poorer countries I constantly saw change and impact – change influenced by one particular actor – China. Some people were positive about it, some were negative. It was mixed.

Yet, in my work on international development in the UK and with the country governments and general members of the public, I realised very few of these people knew how to deal with China or even understood who they were dealing with.

I felt this was too important to leave to fate. So I started to look to work in China, and got what was the perfect introductory role – heading up a special department set up in UNDP to work specifically on “China and the World”. It was a great job. The UN is really trusted, I had a great research team… But it was also inflexible and bureaucratic, it had high overheads, and in some cases felt it didn’t have the mandate to directly support African stakeholders, for example, in their dealings with China.  So after two years in that role, and also after becoming a mother, I decided to jump into the private sector and set up my own consultancy “Development Reimagined”.   At development reimagined our ambition is to bring new solutions to the global complexity of poverty reduction and sustainable development, drawing from experience all over the world – including China – as well as piloting new ideas. We design projects, we evaluate projects, we help implement them for and on behalf of organisations.

But while we do this broader international development work, we’ve also developed a strong speciality on China-Africa cooperation. Our clients range from African governments trying to get more investors or tourists from Africa, to African businesses and brands trying to enter the Chinese market, and the other way around – helping Chinese organisations deliver their aid better, and Chinese businesses understand and operate better in African countries.  Much of our public work has been cited in publications from the Economist and FT to Quartz Africa, CGTN, and the Cape Town Argus. In some cases we even partner with media houses to publish new data or work that we have done.

So now you know my story, and what locus I have on this topic, but before I go onto my three suggestions for carving out our distinct African perspective on China and “the West”, I want to get an idea from you of what you think about China’s role in the world and Africa more specifically…

[audience answers]

What I find interesting about your responses is how diverse they are, how broad they are. This is fairly typical, and fits very well into what I’m going to share with you next. Because the other thing is that they are not necessarily “African”. And that’s not to be rude, but it’s also part of our challenge – how we speak for ourselves.

Let me give you an example.

Take the issue of debt. The African perspective on debt is diverse, but it does include the fact that African (and most other poorer) countries actually need to raise external debt from other countries or private lenders in order to climb out of poverty, tackle climate change, and meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.  The African Development Bank estimates the need for this external help – just for infrastructure – to be in the billions per year. Billions – over $63 billion to be exact. I think Moky mentioned Gates has spent 40 billion dollars over its lifetime so far? Well loans and grants from the entire development community to ALL countries in the world for all problems not just infrastructure – in 2018 was 153 billion US dollars – and less than 20% of that went to African countries… I think it’s obvious that if African countries do not raise some of their finance needs via grants or debt from elsewhere, they will have no chance of meeting the goals. So when an article starts with the idea that countries are potentially facing a debt crisis, my view is – well… No. They are facing a massive financing gap, and are they – and their partners – doing enough to plug that gap and spending the money they have productively. Are they growing from the debt or not, and if not, then are there other projects they should be supporting. Not cutting off the finance due to some arbitrary limit… Indeed – anyone know the country with the highest external debt to GDP ratio in Africa?

Mauritius. Surprised? Check it later!

Indeed, we have to speak for ourselves.  There are many, many other issues – from trade, to scholarships, to intellectual property issues – where the real, vital and African perspective and narrative is yet to emerge and dominate.

And it needs to. If China doesn’t hear our perspective, it will actually turn the tap off rather than encourage leaders to be more selective in the infrastructure projects they put forward for debt financing. If China doesn’t hear our perspective, it will push us to make the same mistakes that were made in the 1980s with structural adjustment, imposing liberalising policies on our countries that we absolutely cannot manage and push poverty levels up not down.

So how do we carve out this space? I’m afraid I can’t talk about your business models, I can’t talk about how you use social media. But I can talk about how you pick your topics substantively and write about them, as someone that uses media and engages with it, in some cases very frustratedly.

So here are those three ideas.

First, we need to be careful on our language.

Frantz Fanon, the great panafricanist, once said “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” I agree, and extend his point to the use of specific words. I believe the language, the words we use are important in shaping our thinking and have real consequences.

That’s why, for example, I have a policy to rarely (and try to never) say “Africa”. I always say “African countries” – because Africa is not a country, and each of the 55 countries on the continent are very diverse.

It’s also why I avoid saying “China does this or does that” or “China believes this or believes that”– because the country is not one actor. There are Chinese private and state-owned companies, there is the Chinese government, there are Chinese non-governmental organisations, Chinese think-tanks and academia – and like in all countries they all act and think differently.  Yes, the Government might want all Chinese actors to align around the Belt and Road Initiative, but that’s a framework. It’s like federal law in some countries… There’s a lot of devolution and room for interpretation at the local level.

It’s also why I avoid the use of the term “the West” for two reasons – first, its usually some kind of amalgamation of Europe, USA, Canada and perhaps also Australia and Japan, but not Russia – but that is both selective and ahistorical. The regions and countries I’ve just mentioned all had quite different types of engagement with slavery and colonialism in the past, and now have strongly differing policies on immigration, multilateralism and other issues. They’re not one either! Second, it also sets up a bipolar world in terms of an emerging “China” that is itself taking on an imperial nature and being threatening through hard, soft and “sharp power”, versus the West. But a “bipolar world” by its very nature disempowers African, Caribbean, South American, Asian and Pacific countries who don’t fit and may indeed have a different view and experience to everyone else.

So my first suggestion is that we remove all these terms from our vocabulary, or only use them very selectively, when it really makes sense.

My second suggestion is this. Always contextualise and compare China and other international actors. Every story happens within a broader context, broader trends.  One way of doing this is looking at history. Another one is providing information about another similar country’s actions and experience. Here’s one recent example.

Our clients often ask us about trade with China, an increasingly critical component of any country’s or business’ development strategy. Many are trying to get access to China’s market – even my own country Kenya has recently negotiated to have its avocadoes come in – but I won’t go into that right now.

However, while we do support them in these negotiations, we also realise that China’s trade patterns exist within other global drivers and patterns, which they need to also be aware of and potentially can also use as means to lobby or advocate for their positions. So, we started to look into this, into the trade patterns between the African continent and the largest 20 countries in the world – the G20… and realised to our surprise – no-one had looked at this before. But it was fascinating and important context.

So, for example, many people complain about cheap Chinese products coming into Africa, but China’s not the only one that exports a lot. For the G20 as a whole, for every $1 of African exports to G20 countries, $1.4 goes back to the G20 as imports intoAfrica from the G20. Of all the G20 countries there is only onethat imports more from 50% of African countries than it exports to (any guesses?). Mexico.

Indeed, Africa is not a trade priority for most of them. Together the G20 import 36 times more goods from outside of Africa than from within the continent. Now, I could go on about these results, and also talk about whose fault it is – is it African countries who are not manufacturing enough, not attracting enough business, or are the G20 markets and China too closed, etc, etc. I won’t.

But I will say this.

The world is now increasingly talking about Africa’s growth and transformation potential.  The 55 African countries have just come together to create the largest free trade agreement in the world, and African countries have been opening up their business environments and building industrial zones and infrastructure to attract investment. But our data shows that the global policy environment for trade with African countries is harsh, and it has hardly shifted since before the Doha trade round was initiated back in 2001. In some cases, it has worsened, with preferential trade agreements being used as political tools rather than enablers, or being disregarded through use of non-tariff barriers, both for agricultural and value-added products. It’s the job of communications professionals to enlighten the world, Africans in particular, on these issues. And if we understand them, we can do something about them. And for communications organisations, these better-informed people will want to come back to your media sources as a result. Context matters.

So finally, my third suggestion. Build cross-country capacity and understanding, especially of China. The fact is, and increasingly unlike many other international partners out there, there are very few cases where Chinese govt officially provides information, broken down by country, about how it has supported the various African countries. Confucius institutes is one – we found that data and did a great piece on it last year. But in other cases its not.

Also, it’s hard to summarise some cross-country information. Back in 2012 I was in Addis Ababa to help design a private sector development programme, when the light rail project was about to begin [ask audience: anyone been on it?].

Well, I was in my hotel reading the morning paper and I saw an article about a five year schedule for how many Ethiopians and Chinese would be involved in the project. In the first year, there would be more Chinese, and by the 5thyear hardly any. I was impressed at this approach. I also remember, maybe two years later, big protests in Kenya over jobs and local content with regards to the Standard Gauge Railway, where clearly Kenya had not negotiated the same kinds of terms, and eventually renegotiated and came up with a simple formula and overall number of Kenyans to be hired.

My point is not to say one is better than the other, but that there was to my knowledge no exchange of information on what best practice of these standards is across the continent. It applies to so many areas, interest rates on loans, environmental standards, PPPs, and so on.  It also applies to projects with other partners – the US for example, what is their local hiring policy?  The point of exploring these cross-country comparisons, is not to create rifts between any of the countries and China. Each African country knows that it is special and different, and therefore requires a different relationship with China. But it is helpful to create a bit of friendly competition, and exchange of ideas and experience on how to improve and deepen the relationship with China. I’ve seen some great progress on this, Quartz did a great piece recently on comparing air traffic routes for example… But there is definitely space for more, possibly even as collaborations between media houses and journalists across the continent.

Ladies and Gentlemen, communications professionals from Africa but also from all over the world. I was asked to answer the question “Can Africa rise to the play?”. My answer is a definite yes, and I’ve shared three practical ways I hope you will find useful going forwards – 1) use language carefully, 2) put China in context, and 3) compare across Africa.

But it’s also not about can. With over 400 million people still in abject poverty in our continent, in cities and in the countryside, in 2019, Africa needs to rise to the play, with China, with the UK, with all its other development partners. Let’s start communicating about our world in a way that enables that. There is no East, there is no West. There needs to be just all of us, working together to make this emergence finally happen.


This speech was given by Hannah Ryder, CEO of Development Reimagined at the first Global Africa Forum on Communications, organised by the Nerve Africa, in Kigali, Rwanda, from 21st to 23rd August 2019.

August 2019

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