By Peter Bosshard (*)
May 7, 2007 — Africa’s finance ministers are currently boarding their planes for an exciting trip. On May 16-17, they will convene in Shanghai for the annual meeting of the African Development Bank. The location illustrates the key role which China is currently playing in financing Africa’s development. Beijing has spent $6 billion on development assistance to Africa, and promised another $5 billion in soft loans in late 2006. Trade between China and Africa is expanding rapidly, and expected to reach $100 billion per year by the end of the decade.
China and Africa have always had friendly relations. The Chinese government stresses that its support is “sincere, unselfish and has no strings attached”. This is a welcome departure from the harsh economic conditions that Western governments have for decades imposed on Africa through the International Monetary Fund. China’s hands-off attitude offers African governments a unique opportunity to pursue development policies of their own choice. They should not squander this historic opportunity.
China’s respect for Africa’s sovereignty in economic policy gives the continent a break from the IMF’s ill-conceived privatization agenda. Yet in the political arena, China risks repeating the errors that Western governments made during the Cold War. As long as African partners respect its diplomatic interests and don’t recognize Taiwan, China’s government has so far turned a blind eye to corruption, repression and environmental destruction. In its Bribe-Payers Index, Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, finds Chinese companies to be among the most corrupt. China has extended generous loans to the Angolan government, which continues to divert billions of dollars of oil revenues into private pockets. The Chinese government finances projects such as the Merowe Dam, which has devastating impacts on local people and the environment in Northern Sudan. And it has provided repressive governments with military equipment, and devices to control the internet and jam independent radio stations.
Fighting corruption and environmental destruction will not undermine African sovereignty – indeed, such steps will support Africa’s own efforts. African governments have committed themselves to strengthening good governance through the African Union and NEPAD. A task force of the African Union agreed in September 2006 “to ensure that China pays more attention to the protection of the environment in its investment practices”.
China is a late-comer to the global party of resource extraction, and late-comers often have to fight aggressively for a place at the table. But today, 800 Chinese companies operate in Africa and close to 100,000 of its citizens live on the continent. China has become a powerful player in African development, and should pay more attention to the long-term stability and prosperity of the countries it invests in. Disregarding corruption and repression will not ensure this. A healthy environment and social cohesion are just as important for sustainable development as the transfer of finance and technology. Already, Chinese investors which disregard this are feeling a popular backlash in countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.
The Chinese government has recognized that bad governance triggers upheaval at home. It is clamping down hard on corruption within China. It has also strengthened its domestic environmental regulations, in order to limit the massive economic and health impacts of environmental destruction. China should apply the same standards to the pipelines and hydropower projects, mines and forestry operations that it finances in Africa.
Africa’s needs for infrastructure investments and consumer goods are immense. Being a developing country, China is in a unique position to address these needs. But as Chinese and African partners expand their cooperation, they should not repeat the mistakes which Western governments have made during the Cold War. Friendship allows an open dialogue. When the Chinese hosts, African finance ministers, non-governmental organizations and journalists all meet in Shanghai, they should address the difficult topics that have often hindered Africa’s development in the past.
(*) The author is the policy director of International Rivers Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Wesite: http://www.irn.org/