This blog post isn’t about the language, it’s about other lessons: The approaches and strategies which made China successful and could be adopted in African countries. My interest for Sino-African relations emerged when I lived and worked in Nairobi last year and I’m already learning Chinese for two years.
I would like to discuss three books and a documentary which recently contributed to my understanding of the topic.
First there was “The West and the Rest” by Niall Ferguson. The book analyzes the history of civilization and explains the prosperity in Europe and North America with six success factors or “Killer apps” as Ferguson denotes it with a neat reference to the smartphone era: 1) Competition, 2) Scientific revolution, 3) Private property, 4) Medicine, 5) Consumer society and 6) Work ethic. One of Ferguson’s conclusions with regard to China and other Asian countries: They started to download those apps but more importantly they are “hungry and foolish” as Steve Jobs would have said.
Meanwhile Europe and North America became lazy. And although those two continents developd the “Killer apps” of the 20th century, they might not provide the development models for the 21st century. As a liberal who believes in the power of freedom I find myself in a tricky position when I try to understand the powerful new form of state capitalism in China, Russia or Brazil.
Of course wealth isn’t the only achievement of civilization: China in particular lacks soft power, for example due to human rights concerns, and it won’t be enough to export Panda bears to European zoos in order to improve the standing. But remarkable wealth had to be created so that the country could move more than 600 million people out of poverty over the last three decades according to the World Bank’s Development Research Group.
The demographic dividend contributed a good deal to the success story: This term describes the economic benefit which countries get when the share of the working-age population rises relative to children and old people. Through the demographic lens many African countries are today in the same position as China and other Asian countries 30 years ago. When it comes to their economies sub-Saharan Africa has already grown faster than Asia in eight of the past ten years according to The Economist. And in 2012, the International Montetary Fund (IMF) expects Africa to grow at a rate of 6% – about the same as Asia.
Onward to another book in which Niall Ferguson has written the foreword: Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid” where I first read that China and its Beijing Consensus could provide a development model for Africa. Deborah Brautigam’s book “The Dragon’s Gift” contains less of Moyo’s criticism about development aid and more details on China’s approaches and strategies. She argues that African countries will develop and prosper if they learn from China how to use investment, trade and technology. Nonetheless she highlights that after 60 years of Western aid, there remains a reluctance to accept its failure to promote development or tackle poverty. Three points which I consider as particularly relevant:
- Credible policies: What China promotes was tested at home. Four special economic zones were shortcuts for development and the policies are quite explicit: For industry learn from Daqing, for agriculture learn from Dazhai. There are plenty of lessons for Africa.
- Trade not aid: China has recently become Africa’s largest trading partner, lending more money to the continent than the World Bank. Trade is not only more efficient than aid, it also creates mutual benefits and respect instead of the humiliating beggar-donor relationships.
- Infrastructure projects: While traditional donor countries allocate very little of their aid to industrial and infrastrucutre projects, the Chinese say “to end poverty, build a road”. In those sectors thousands of jobs could be created.
“China’s foray into Africa is indicative of a wider shift in power from West to East”, says Nick Francis who produced “When China met Africa”. The documentary follows three men in Zambia: Felix Mutati who is the country’s trade minister, a Chinese farm-owner and a project manager for a Chinese multinational company. The pictures are complimentary to the three books: There is less analysis, more emotions and room for unexpected observations.
Pessimists still dominate the debate about the future of Africa. Among other reasons it’s obvious that good news threaten the NGO business. It wasn’t as a result of their activities, but rather through markets and freedom that for the first time since such data is collected less than 50% of the population in Africa live with less than 1.25 $ per day according to the World Bank
. China’s presence in Africa should turn us optimistic: There is light and water so that trees can grow – hopefully they don’t lose their fragile democratic roots. Because as The Economist stated
recently: “All but a few of the continent’s 1 billion people now expect to vote in regular national polls. That is something which 1.5 billion Asians, for all their impressive economic performance, cannot do.”