US expert challenges myths about China in Africa

18:19, July 23, 2010      

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After 27 years of research and field work, U.S. Africa expert Professor Deborah Brautigam is in a position to challenge prevailing Western orthodoxies about China's role in Africa.

Speaking in Beijing on Thursday, Professor Brautigam attacked lurid accusations commonly seen in the press that "the Chinese are the new colonialists, their aid is toxic; they are making poverty worse, and are undermining democracy and good governance."

She said she preferred the assessment of a Financial Times editorial that "Beijing has thrown down its most direct challenge yet to the West's architecture for aiding Africa."

"China's core ideas about development are quite different," she said. "It's not about colonialism. It's globalization with Chinese characteristics."

China's message to Africa is "Leverage what you have," said Brautigam. "Leverage the natural resources you have and use those to secure loans, to swap for loans, to build infrastructure." This approach, she said, reflects the Chinese slogan, "If you want to get rich, build a road."

China grants resource-backed loans that effectively fund infrastructure projects in Africa in return for raw materials. According to Professor Brautigam, the model is based on a Japanese US$10 billion loans-for-oil deal with China made in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.

Brautigam said China learnt valuable lessons from its experience as a recipient of loans and is applying the lessons in Africa.

She emphasizes that Chinese involvement is about mutual benefit rather than aid. Loans are made at commercial, not concessional, rates and money is not handed to the recipient government but to the Chinese firms contracted to build roads, sewage systems, sports stadiums and so on.

But Brautigam says this model of exchanging resources for infrastructure, works better than giving cash loans that can be siphoned off into offshore bank accounts by corrupt politicians and officials.

And the infrastructure benefits the whole economy. Brautigam quoted a Nigerian diplomat as saying "The west came to Nigeria and it is all about oil, oil, oil. The Chinese are interested in all aspects of the economy."

Brautigam says the press also routinely exaggerates the extent of Chinese involvement in Africa. Even the World Bank gets it wrong, misquoting Wen Jiabao as saying China has given Africa a total of US$ 44 billion when the correct figure was 44 billion yuan (US$6.5 billion). Annual Chinese aid to Africa is currently around US$2 billion, much lower than figures commonly cited.

Another myth is that Chinese projects in Africa only employ Chinese workers. In fact, Professor Brautigam said, on average, Chinese projects employ 80 percent Africans and 20 percent Chinese.

This is not to say Chinese involvement in Africa is without problems, Brautigam said. Chinese manufacturers, traders and farmers compete with local businesses. Corruption and kickbacks are common practices, and Chinese firms often have low environmental and labor standards.

Nevertheless she compares China's involvement favorably with that of the West.

"The West is not very successful in Africa in raising living standards or fostering structural transformation," she said. "Our record is not very hard to beat"

Professor Brautigam's book The Dragon's gift: The real story of China in Africa was published in 2009 by Oxford University Press.



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