February 28, 2012
One hears often that China is superseding the West as the dominant force in Africa. I read it implied most recently this morning in an article by Mwangi Kimenyi of the Brookings Institution. “…U.S. foreign direct investment to Africa remains low and declining relative to other countries – especially China.”
Over the weekend, curled up on a lawn chair along the rippling Nile, I read a back story in Harvard Business Review reporting that America’s KFC plans to open 15,000 outlets in China alone by 2015.
Side by side, these two articles capture why the West isn’t more invested in Africa, a point too often omitted from coverage of China vs. the West in Africa. China isn’t so much beating the West in Africa. Rather, the West goes where it sees opportunity. It doesn’t see much opportunity in Africa. Let China take the gamble, its actions are saying, let it, literally, pave the way with its high-risk, low margin infrastructure projects. If investment conditions improve, we’ll come in.
While they play wait and see on the economic front, western governments are maintaining their strategic interests, shoring up military alliances, as seen in Somalia; selectively securing resources, as in Angola and Equatorial Guinea; and swaying decision makers through vast injections of aid and budgetary support.
Shrewdly it seems the West is taking steps not to cede the continent to newcomers, while at the same time not rushing headlong into infrastructure and other high-risk ventures on a continent whose course remains very much in question.
When Kimenyi writes, “[China, Brazil, India and others]…see sub-Saharan Africa as a budding place for investment,” and that “the US cannot afford to cede Africa to other nations,” one detects a veiled plea, the understanding being that Africa can’t do it with Chinese investment alone.
This hasn’t stopped commentators from praising the Chinese “model” of no-strings-attached investment on the continent as a sensible alternative to western contributions. What these observers can’t bring themselves to admit (or say at least) is that they are hoping China can deliver the miracle that billions of dollars in western aid since independence hasn’t delivered – hasn’t delivered mainly because African leaders and even lower-downs have misappropriated vast sums of money in the name of self-enrichment.
Africans want a second chance, without taking responsibility. Declaring the form of aid to be the problem is a means to that end.
The dangers of that temptation are not lost on Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who said last month after the Chinese handed over the keys to a new $200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, “[The building] is only a symptom of a much bigger problem – the problem being that Africa, in my view, should not be where it is today,” he said. “We need to find a way out of this – Africa we need to work hard, be smart in many ways and do things in such way that will get us out of this situation.”
Seeing Africa’s future through the prism of China and the West is to miss the point.