Monday, November 20, 2006

China's African Adventure

The New York Times Magazine has an article about China's push in to Africa which, unlike oh so many other examples, avoids the hysterical panic about China's lack of human rights standards, it's willingness to buy from places like Zimbabwe or the Sudan, and concludes with this excellent point:
If we believe that a model of development that strengthens the hand of authoritarian leaders and does little, if anything, to empower the poor is a bad long-term strategy for Africa, then we are going to have to come up with a strategic partnership of our own. And it is not only a question of what is good for the African people. The United States has a real security interest in avoiding failed states and in blocking the spread of terrorism in East and North Africa. What’s more, the United States already imports 15 percent of its oil from Africa, mostly from Angola and Nigeria; that figure is bound to rise and could even double, eventually making Africa as large a supplier of oil as the Middle East now is. China’s Africa policy shows that globalization is increasingly divorced from Westernization. We have grown accustomed to the idea that Africa needs us; it’s time to recognize that we, like China, need Africa.
We can talk all day about enforcing human rights through trade, but the reality is very simple - we've never really used human rights consistently in trade policy, and for most of the postwar period, human rights have been entirely absent from trade policy. (Pinochet, anyone?) Meanwhile, the policies we've forced on the poor through the IMF and World Bank - whatever their theoretical underpinnings - have a pretty long record of... not... working.

So China comes in, builds massively in infrastructure (where it has expertise) connecting major production centres in places like Angola - that is integrating the economy - and does it without economic or human rights conditions. Money from the west is "costly" both in terms of actual money but also in terms of national sovereignty. Long after the post-colonial period, national sovereignty is still a key issue for developing states.

People really, really shouldn't underestimate what the rather clinical word "infrastructure" actually means to the global poor:
Just as I reached the eastern side of the bridge I heard a tremendous roar — the Toyota was fishtailing wildly at the base of the bridge. It bucked forward and then slipped back. Only then did I discover that this jalopy, with bales of material and a live chicken in the back, was in fact the Kuembe-Kuito taxi service. The driver, Anacleto Kakande, said that he made the round trip twice a week. Somehow, four times a week he would navigate the bent railroad tracks, the shattered bed, the logs, the foot-high water. The five women, with five babies, waiting patiently at the western edge of the bridge were his fares; they said they were charged 1,500 kwanzas — about $19 — for the trip. It was only then that I fully understood how the terribly abstract word “infrastructure” could come to feel like life itself. For 15 years, the traders and farmers of this region had lived with no other means of crossing from one side of the Kwanza River to the other. (Why a ferry service hadn’t been developed, I have no idea.) They had improvised heroically, but at an absurd cost in time and effort. If those Chinese engineers ever got to the bridge, the local economy might really, as Jaime said, jump.
If China wants to go in to Africa and build bridges, roads, and electrical infrastructure for cheap, we have no place to yell "stop", especially if our only concerns are that Africa might choose a model of development that actually works for them, or that China might be positioning itself well for the 21st century. If we want Africans to listen to us, we might try something as breathtakingly irrational as offering them a better deal - more money with less strings. I know, weird.

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