China’s presence in Africa has been discussed widely (including on this blog but also here here here here) but the conversation is just getting started. Last week, USAID hosted a presentation as part of their summer series discussing the issue, with participants adding new insights to the debate that are worth a second glance.
The first and most memorable speaker was the ambassador of Tanzania to the US, Ombeni Sefue. On the whole, Sefue regards China’s involvement with Tanzania positively. He did acknowledge that there have been issues; the two examples given were Chinese-imported goods of poor quality, and shoddy construction by Chinese companies.
But Sefue argues these problems are equally the fault of the Tanzanians. Tanzanian importers need to take responsibility for the goods they accept and need to instate a more rigorous screening process. Similarly, when the government gives any company a construction contract, be it Chinese or otherwise, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure the quality of work is consistent with pre-existing standards of safety.
From the US Treasury…
Following the ambassador was the aptly named David Dollar, formerly of the World Bank and now the US Treasury’s emissary to China. Dollar’s focused on China’s economic situation during a global recession, and how this may affect its relationship with Africa. Dollar suggests that because Americans are spending less, the Chinese will not be able to buy up the same high levels of US debt they have been used to in the past few years. Chinese excess capital will need to be funneled somewhere, and Dollar argues this ‘somewhere’ is Africa. There simply are not enough opportunities for commercial investment within China itself.
From American University…
The final speaker, Professor Deborah Brautigam of American University, is certainly an expert on the topic. She authored the 1998 book Chinese Aid and African Development: Exporting the Green Revolution, and has been conducting many interviews and research in the past few years for her new book to be published this fall. Brautigam’s message is this: do not believe everything you hear. She is very critical of the Western media’s willingness to publish statistics on Chinese aid and Chinese foreign direct investment. The Chinese government does not make these figures public, so anything in a newspaper is pure speculation, she says.
So what are we to take from all of this? Perhaps most importantly, that no issue is clear cut. A overly simple declaration that China is a neocolonial force exploiting defenseless African victims is insulting to the African countries and governments who are perfectly capable of beefing up regulations, as Ambassador Sefue said. And Chinese construction companies and aid donors are certainly not the only ones drawing some skeptical scrutiny.