African Union replacing Western partners with China?
I was asked yesterday to comment on Chinese investment in Africa for Radio France International’s English news service (Broadcast #1, Broadcast #2). This was in response to comments made on Saturday by Maxwell Mkwezalamba, Commissioner for Economic Affairs for the African Union at the summit currently underway in Kampala.
Here’s the far less controversial thing Mkwezalamba *actually* said (emphasis my own):
“We need to diversify our partners that we work with and hence for us, working with China is something that we have welcomed.”
He’s promoting an idea I first encountered several years back in Uganda, while talking to a government official who dismissed fears of China’s takeover of Africa as overblown. He said Uganda had and would continue to engage with Western donors, but that China was increasingly giving Uganda the freedom to dictate their own terms. So, for example, if the flavor of the month, whether it was fighting TB or promoting women’s microcredit or abstinence-only HIV/AIDS prevention, didn’t align with the government’s actual needs or interests, they’d have more room to say: actually, what we really need is funding for agricultural implements or to pay teachers’ salaries, or what have you. He said what China was increasingly doing for Ugandans was giving them the ability to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Although on the one hand donor coordination is important to give aid policies some semblance of coherence, there are very few markets where monopolies lead to good outcomes. Considering the West’s track record in ending poverty in Africa, I think Western donors could stand some competition.
I’m aware I often come off as a cheerleader when I should be a critic. Don’t get me wrong, there are many things that are problematic about Chinese investment in Africa, but many of those same things are what is also wrong with Western investment. China offers a few unprecedented opportunities that I think at least some countries, if leaders are savvy and the public holds them to account, will make work to their advantage.