West Must Walk the Talk

The Herald (Harare)
3 March 2008
WHEN it comes to China and Africa, the European Union and the U.S. want to eat their cake and have it too, writes Senegalese President ABDOULAYE WADE.
IN an echo of its past colonial rivalries, European leaders and donor organisations have expressed concerns that African nations are throwing their doors open too wide to Chinese investors and to exploitation by their Asian partners.
But if opening up more free markets is a goal that the West prizes and extols as a path to progress, why is Europe fretting about China’s growing economic role in Africa? The expansion of free markets has indeed been a boon to Africa. But as I tell my friends in the West, China is doing a much better job than Western capitalists of responding to market demands in Africa.
The battle for influence in the world between the West and China is not Africa’s problem. Our continent is in a hurry to build infrastructure, ensure affordable energy and educate our people. In many African nations, African leaders are striving to reinforce robust economic growth in a sustainable manner and reduce "brain drain" incentives that have led to an exodus of well-educated Africans to Europe.
China’s approach to our needs is simply better adapted than the slow and sometimes patronising post-colonial approach of European investors, donor organisations and non-governmental organisations. In fact, the Chinese model for stimulating rapid economic development has much to teach Africa. With direct aid, credit lines and reasonable contracts, China has helped African nations build infrastructure projects in record time — bridges, roads, schools, hospitals, dams, legislative buildings, stadiums and airports.
In many African nations, including Senegal, improvements in infrastructure have played important roles in stimulating economic growth. These are improvements, moreover, that stay in Africa and raise the standards of living for millions of Africans, not just an elite few.
In Senegal, a Chinese company cannot be awarded an infrastructure-related contract unless it has partnered with a Senegalese company. In practice, Chinese companies are not only investing in Senegal but transferring technology, training and know-how to Senegal at the same time. It is a telling sign of the post-colonial mindset that some donor organisations in the West dismiss the trade agreements between Chinese banks and African states that produce these vital improvements as though Africa was naive enough to just offload its precious natural resources at bargain prices to obtain a commitment for another stadium or state house.
In the past, the political power play between Taiwan and China often spurred Asian investment on the African continent. Today, however, economic relations are based more on mutual need and the economic reality that the EU and the US cannot compete with China. A number of big projects in Senegal had initially been funded by the Taiwanese, but in 2005; Senegal abandoned the politicisation of development and opted for decisions based on a free market.
I have found that a contract that would take five years to discuss, negotiate and sign with the World Bank takes three months when we have dealt with Chinese authorities.
I am a firm believer in good governance and the rule of law. But when bureaucracy and senseless red tape impede our ability to act and when poverty persists while international functionaries drag their feet, African leaders have an obligation to opt for swifter solutions.
I achieved more in my one hour meeting with President Hu Jintao in an executive suite at my hotel in Berlin during the recent G8 meeting in Heiligendamm than I did during the entire, orchestrated meeting of world leaders at the summit where African leaders were told little more than that G8 nations would respect existing commitments.
At the same time that China has been especially nimble, the prices and quality of goods coming from Asia give African governments no choice other than to buy Chinese, Indian and Malaysian goods. For the price of one European vehicle, a Senegalese can purchase two Chinese cars.
The proof is in the parking lot at the presidential palace in Dakar. Low-cost Chinese Chery and Great Wall models are giving Senegal’s middle and working classes access to a new car, a sign of our emerging consumer class.
We are even using these affordable Chinese cars in a pilot project to reinsert unemployed women into the workforce by creating a fleet of taxis called Sister Taxis. When products are affordable, innovative programmes become realistic.
China, which has fought its own battles to modernise, has a much greater sense of the personal urgency of development in Africa than many Western nations. Last year, the Chinese Eximbank pledged US$20 billion in development funds for African infrastructure and trade financing over the next three years, funds that outstripped all Western donor pledges combined.
News of the Exim commitment caused a fuss in some quarters of Europe. But Western complaints about China’s slow pace in adopting democratic reform cannot obscure the fact that the Chinese are more competitive, less bureaucratic and more adept at business in Africa than their critics.
Today I find myself at the heart of an economic struggle with the EU. If Europe does not want to provide funding for African infrastructure — it pledged US$15 billion under the Cotonou Agreement eight years ago — the Chinese are ready to take up the task, more rapidly and at less cost. Not just Africa but the West itself has much to learn from China. It is time for the West to practice what it preaches about the value of market incentives.
Copyright © 2008 The Herald. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). 

About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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