A New Colonialism in Africa?

June 25, 2013 06:03 AM

By Lesly Weber McNitt

I recently returned from a Farm Journal Foundation fact-finding trip to Ghana and Kenya to learn firsthand about agricultural development and media. Foundation team members visited farms, fisheries, crop input retailers and projects run by public-private partnerships to modernize production. We met with leaders in radio, television and print media, as well as some tech pioneers who are revolutionizing the way information is delivered to smallholder farmers. Our delegation learned about the progress being made, remaining challenges and the incredible potential for growth.

Although we were in Africa, I was surprised by how we were surrounded by China. During our travel, we often heard the same refrain about the Chinese government building roads, railways, housing, dams and ports in Africa. Driving through the countryside in Kenya, we saw it for ourselves—Chinese infrastructure projects were assembling all around us.

China has overtaken the World Bank to become the top lender to African countries, having committed nearly $75 billion to the continent in the last decade. While the Chinese government guards its foreign aid as a "state secret," AidData, an open data research initiative tracking Chinese development financing to Africa, has created an interactive map (http://aiddatachina.org/analyze) showing nearly 1,700 development projects spread among all African countries (except for the four that officially recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty). Stratfor Global Intelligence has developed a map of its own, itemizing the $101 billion China has committed to commercial projects in Africa since 2010. The relationship with Africa is so significant to the Chinese that in March, new Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first official state visit to Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Durban, South Africa for the BRICS Summit.

A report in a Ghanaian newspaper brought the picture into focus: China committed $9 billion USD to infrastructure development in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which contains an estimated $24 trillion in untapped mineral resources. Other investments suggest a trend that Nathan William Meyer in a recent World Policy Journal blog entry refers to as "resources-for-infrastructure" deals : "In 2004, China struck a $3 billion deal with Gabon who would receive dams, railroads, and ports in return for Chinese access to iron ore reserves. This was followed in 2009 with similar deals in Guinea and Zimbabwe amounting to $7 and $8 billion respectively, whereby resource wealth would underwrite Chinese infrastructure investments. "

Some call this type of investment soft power; the Chinese government calls it "mutual benefit." I began to wonder if what we’re seeing is actually a new form of colonialism.

Some would say yes. Certain analysts depict a scenario in which the Chinese government approaches a cash-strapped leader of an African country and offers a no-strings attached investment or loan. African governments gladly accept capital and improved infrastructure free and clear of the pesky good governance, anti-corruption or poverty reduction standards typically imposed by western donor countries. In return, the Chinese government requests rights to access said African country’s natural resources as repayment. It makes sense; what better way to get valuable resources out and Chinese exports in than infrastructure development?

The results aren’t always pretty. Allegations of counterfeit products, labor safety standards, poor quality of buildings, and land grabs have followed a number of development projects. In Angola, the Chinese government is replacing the Luanda General Hospital, which it originally constructed in 2006 and in 2009 showed signs of collapse. We heard complaints firsthand in Kenya about counterfeit Chinese crop inputs being sold to small farmers. The Chinese also are criticized for bringing in mostly Chinese labor rather than transferring new skills to locals greatly in need of employment.

In Zambia, a country rich in copper that has the third largest Chinese presence in Africa, corruption and labor abuse culminated in a 2010 bloody dispute between Chinese managers of the Collum Coal Mine and Zambian workers who were protesting unsafe conditions, followed by another incident last year. In response, the Zambian government revoked those mining rights and instituted banking measures to monitor and report on the business activities of foreign investors and to ensure they pay taxes and royalties. Other governments are starting to crack down, as well. In Ghana, soldiers have arrested hundreds of Chinese workers accused of stealing gold from Ghanaian mines.

Some would say no. Other analysts suggest this is not colonialism; this is a growing global economy at work. A number of experts argue that investing in these types of projects is indicative of how the Chinese build relationships and lay groundwork for increased trade. They assert that the overall positive impact of Chinese influence in Africa outweighs the good, and many Africans agree. A 2012 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report documents how China has put hundreds of millions of dollars toward health, education and cultural projects. Figures fluctuate somewhat, but AidData generally supports this finding as well, showing approximately 10% of commitments directed toward health and development.

Additionally, China has been willing to invest where a lot of western countries do not, or limit their involvement to humanitarian or security aid, like in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many African countries do not have the capability to access buried natural resources that could significantly bolster their economies, so they welcome foreign intervention. Some scholars attribute American skepticism to a fear of emerging Chinese global economic influence and a sense of missed opportunity for the United States. A similar school of thought contends that Chinese infrastructure investment does not threaten U.S. interests but rather will make it easier for American companies to do business in Africa in the long run.

Conclusion: It may be counterproductive to try to guess the motive behind China’s or any other nation’s investments in Africa. However, African leaders would be well served to proceed with caution. Easy money and development are important incentives, but African governments and people should consider their long-term interests and attach some strings of their own. It would be a mistake to let good governance and anti-corruption measures fall by the wayside. Such measures will safeguard opportunity for future generations to prosper from the advances being realized now.

africa map

Lesly Weber McNitt is the director of government relations and program development for the Farm Journal Foundation.

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