Summits as game-changers? Really?

Late last year and early this year African heads of state and Government leaders gathered together at two key events. The first was the 6th summit of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The second was the 26th African Union Summit, hosted at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which was built by China in 2012 as a signal of an ever-strengthening relationship with the continent.

In the margins of both summits, various non-governmental and business organisations held ‘side events’ – on themes such as HIV and AIDS, women’s empowerment, and wildlife protection. The DEGRP and SAIIA workshop on the future of China-Africa relations was one such event, and was striking both for the breadth of issues discussed and the diversity of perspectives around the table. Speakers and delegates addressed topics from industrialisation to peacekeeping, with both supportive and sceptical views represented.

Yet one issue was consistently raised – the ongoing lack of credible, multi-country data to supplement and reinforce the rigorous research already being conducted. Many are working hard to address this. For instance, Professor Deborah Brautigam presented new information on Chinese investment in several African countries, backed up by fieldwork in those countries. As a delegate, I made contributions, citing a recently published UNDP report that combined several case-studies with a comparative historic analysis of Chinese and African Special Economic Zones.

However, while collection of and access to data about China’s engagement in Africa is slowly improving, there are still major gaps. Without data on as many topics as possible – from women’s empowerment, to industrialisation, to HIV and AIDS and peacekeeping – analysis of past successes and failures, and planning for future scenarios, remains difficult.

Which is why two new additions to the FOCAC Action Plan for strategic and cooperative partnership are particularly important.

The first addition, in Section 8.2, outlines a commitment to systematically review and collect information on whether and how agreements made by FOCAC are implemented. This will include drawing on the experience of its operation over the last 15 years. The second addition, found in Section 2.4.6, outlines a plan to set up an office for the African Union in Beijing. This commitment has appeared in previous FOCAC agreements, but is stronger than ever in this latest version.

Taken together, these commitments could have significant implications for the collection and dissemination of data on China-Africa relations. An African Union office in Beijing could utilise the African Union’s legitimacy that is needed for collection of FOCAC implementation data, which has not yet been possible by other non-Chinese actors. In addition, were such information to be made publicly accessible, it would play a valuable part in confirming or dispelling the numerous interpretations of Africa-China relations that have dominated academic and media spheres alike.

Until this improved scenario arrives, academics, businesses, and non-governmental organisations must continue to meet to share research and perspectives. Programmes like DEGRP and organisations such as SAIIA and UNDP can help by continuing to play a supporting role – pulling together other types of data, comparisons and perspectives – for instance from Chinese companies or other actors on the ground . UNDP could even assist with coordination and data collection between the Chinese government and African country representatives in Beijing, until the planned African Union office is created. But most of all, we should all continue to follow-up and keep our eye on further opportunities that might emerge from flagship events such as the FOCAC and African Union summits.

This article was first published by the Overseas Developent Institute (ODI) in May 2016 in this compendium.

May 2016

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