China-led initiatives help Africa

Updated: 2012-12-14 07:39

By Andrew Moody (China Daily)

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 China-led initiatives help Africa

Chris Alden believes China's approach to investment in Africa without any ideological ties has proved "a breath of fresh air" and has smashed the Western donor stranglehold on the continent. Nick Moore / For China Daily

Most important impact Chinese have had is in breaking Western donor cartel, says academic

Chris Alden believes China has proved a catalyst to development in Africa by smashing the Western donor stranglehold on the continent.

The 53-year-old American academic, who is one of the leading global experts on the China-Africa relationship, says the world's second-largest economy's straightforward approach to investment without any ideological ties has proved a breath of fresh air.

"China has reinvigorated the debate on development and brought practical real experience to the continent, and demonstrated they can transform themselves not in six generations or even one generation, but now," he says.

Alden, the author of the highly-acclaimed book China in Africa, was speaking in his office in Houghton Street in London, where he is a reader at the department of international relations at the London School of Economics.

He says China's involvement in Africa since the middle part of the last decade has shown up the failure of the post-1980s so-called Washington Consensus that development in Africa needed to be led by the private sector.

China's aid and investment in infrastructure over the past decade on the other hand, he argues, has secured tangible results.

"I think the first and most important impact China has had is in breaking the Western donor cartel. This monopoly of ideas that had been produced out of the World Bank or adhered to by the OECD had patently brought limited results in development terms," he says.

China-led initiatives help Africa

"You have only got to go to Angola, as I did in the mid-1990s, and contrast the situation with now. For all the problems the country still has, you can get around the city now. There is housing and the roads have been reworked so you can get goods to the market in Rwanda. The place has been rehabilitated. All these are China-led initiatives, by and large. Not exclusively but the main impulse has come from China."

Although based mainly in London, Alden spends one week in every five in Johannesburg and Pretoria where he runs a program at the South African Institute for International Affairs. His wife is South African.

Alden was born in Teheran to a British father and American mother but was educated in the United States after the age of 11.

He read history at Reed College in Portland Oregon before moving to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where he began his Africa specialization, doing an MA on post-colonial Mozambique and a PhD on then South African president P.W. Botha's security state.

This led to an academic career, which has taken in lecturing posts in the US, South Africa and in London. He is now also a director of the Africa Programme at the influential LSE IDEAS center.

Alden says he began his interest in the China-Africa relationship in the early 1990s, when it wasn't fashionable.

"I started working on it when I was working on something called the East Africa project at Witz (Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg).

"Then the rise of Asia used to be described as the Pacific century and was really a lot about Japan and less about the other actors. The story has been somewhat different since it was difficult then to anticipate the trajectory of China."

China's relationship with Africa had been largely a political one from the 1960s but, according to Alden, the turning point was former Chinese president Jiang Zemin's visit to the continent in 1996, which put it on a more economic footing.

"I would say it was a turning point on both sides. Jiang Zemin came away quite impressed with the opportunities that presented themselves in real economic terms in such sectors as agriculture. On the African side there was a realization that China was no longer a marginal player but an emerging power they needed to engage with," he says.

Since early last decade, trade between China and Africa has increased to about an estimated $200 billion (154 million euros) this year from less than $20 billion.

One of the symbols of the new relationship is the gleaming new $124 million African Union Headquarters, which was not only built by Chinese workers but was a gift from Beijing.

Alden dismisses those who see the building as a symbol of China's new writ over Africa.

"It is only controversial with academics and the like. Anyone who works there couldn't be more thrilled to have a clean, nice, modern office to work in. If you put the critics in the old office with its creaky infrastructure and broken lift for just one day, they would soon be running out waving the Chinese flag."

Alden insists the Chinese often get unfairly criticized when they do deals with African governments that do not benefit the local economy as some would claim.

"You have had situations where the Chinese have been invited in and there hasn't been the local content such as local African workers employed as some might have hoped for. The finger unfortunately points at China when it should be directed at African governance and why a deal was struck in the first place that didn't benefit local people."

Alden also says that some of stories in the media about Chinese companies exploiting African workers give a distorted picture of the daily realities of working in Africa.

"If you look on the basis of strikes or what have you, sometimes Chinese companies are exploiting Chinese workers in an African setting. It is these cases that don't interest the press, however," he says.

Alden believes it is not unrealistic to talk of a win-win basis to the China-Africa relationship with the Chinese securing resources and Chinese companies securing contracts to provide vital infrastructure to African countries.

"This is part of the win-win calculus that informs the Chinese approach to development. We get something and you get something," he says.

There have been observations that the 4th Forum on China-Africa Co-operation in July was more low key than the one in 2006, which saw leaders in traditional dress of 48 African countries in procession into the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

"I think there may have been a desire to dampen it down a bit. There is a lot of agenda setting going on within FOCAC that puts a lot of pressure to produce goods every three years. I think the substance of the relationship remains highly meaningful and will continue to be so," he says.

(China Daily 12/14/2012 page24)