The leading academic scholar on “China in Africa,” American University professor Deborah Brautigam recently posted a short video for the International Food Policy Research Center in Washington, D.C. that expands on the thesis of her popular book “The Dragon’s Gift” by highlighting the three major “gifts” the Chinese have brought to Africa. While the professor’s points are instructive about the Chinese approach to African development, they also highlight the failings of the West’s initiatives that have produced shockingly meager dividends from decades of multi-billion dollar “aid” programs. For more of Brautigam’s comments to the IFPRC, a recording of her speech can be seen here.
Gift #1: China’s Own Experience
“There’s a lot in China’s experience that is useful in Africa,” Brautigam begins her explanation. The fact that China was once very poor, and remains a developing country itself, is extremely relevant in the aid and development ideas it exports to Africa, she says. It’s worth noting that more people have become more wealthy in a shorter period of time during the 30 years of China’s economic reforms than at any other time in human history. The wealth here is not the billionaires that China has created. Instead, it’s the hundreds of millions of peasants who moved from just below subsistence to just above subsistence.
Brautigam says the fact that aid was not central to China’s development is very appealing to African countries who have learned painful lessons that Western aid does not lead to prosperity.
Brautigam believes this experience of rapid economic improvement and transformation offers a useful model for many African societies. Most importantly, China’s rise did not come as a result of IMF structural adjustment programs or USAID initiatives but rather through extensive , home-grown experimentation in both industrial and agricultural policy. “Aid was not central to their development,” said Brautigam.
Gift #2: What the Chinese are Actually Doing in Africa
Brautigam dusts off her Mandarin with the Chinese proverb “if you want to get rich, build a road” (要想富先修路) to illustrate Beijing’s decision to place infrastructure at the center of their aid and commercial engagement strategy in Africa. She adds that China’s investments in infrastructure extend far beyond road and bridge building to hydro-power plans and wireless communications capabilities that were non-existant prior to the Chinese arrival. The emphasis on results-oriented infrastruture projects stands in sharp contrast to Western projects that are often significantly larger in scale but often less tangible in day-to-day life (think civil society reforms such as freedom of religion, political and press).
Gift #3: The Image of Africa
For her last point, Brautigam echoes “China Safari” authors Serge Michel and Michel Beuret by contrasting the widely-held enthusiasm many Chinese have for African investment, immigration and development with the West’s “eye rolling” malaise. To most people in Europe and North America, Africa is a place of disease, war, poverty and, well, failure. Conversely, to the Chinese, the continent offers opportunity both individual and governmental.
“For China, Africa is a place to do business and it’s a market of consumers that in 2008 purchased $50 billion of goods from China.” – Deborah Brautigam
Independent of state owned enterprises and official investment programs, hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants are re-settling across Africa with ambitions of starting a new life. They are opening businesses, conducting trade and engaging Africa(ns) in ways the overwhelming majority of Westerners have long abandoned.