The Canadian Broadcast Corporation sent their Beijing correspondent to do some rather extensive reporting on the surge of Chinese investment in Africa. In contrast to much of the other recent coverage of the topic, Anthony Germain’s reporting from Zambia was refreshingly balanced. The highlight of his reporting centers on the question of how China is taking full advantage of the failures of 50 years of Western aid. Several of his sources pointed out that despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Africa, Western aid programs have very little to show.
The Chinese, by contrast, move quickly and efficiently and demonstrate visible results from their engagement. That said, Germain rightly points out that Beijing asks for very little in return from its African partners in the form of political accountability and transparency. While I fully appreciate the importance of this kind of political pressure, it always strikes me as ironic to hear this perspective from Western critics, most notably through the Western media. Specifically, the West (and by default the Western media) appear to be rather selective with their demands for political accountability.
Although the international aid industry spends billions of dollars each year in the very same countries that China is operating, there is virtually no scrutiny of the effectiveness of that money and the negative impact it often has on political accountability in under-developed countries across Africa. Moreover, that same level of accountability is not regularly included in coverage of European and American companies operating in Africa. It is not obvious to me, yet, how the Chinese behavior in Africa is different from that of French, American or German owned resource extraction companies operating in the region.
None of this is meant to exclude the Chinese from scrutiny, instead to highlight the obvious hypocrisy that is regularly employed by outside observers of the Chinese in Africa. Anytime a comparison is done between Chinese and Western aid strategies in Africa, it is worth noting that each brings a distinctive mindset to this endeavor. The issue over “effectiveness” is one that is loaded with considerably different meaning in the West and in China. The United States, for example, has a governmental system made populated disproportionately by lawyers. Results, or effectiveness, is therefore passed through this legalistic (or administrative in the case of many European governments) filter. China, in contrast, is a government made up of technocrats with an engineering background. In this case, each problem or project is seen in the context of a start point and end point. Period. The engineer will solve any problem that arises in the interim of these two points with the end result in mind.
Consider the following scenario: Say the Chinese have been tasked to build a road in Madagascar. The construction veers off course by 4 degrees, prompting the road to bend slightly to the left. For the Chinese project managers, this is a simple problem with an easy answer: continue building the road but just pull it to the right a bit to make the road as a straight as possible but do not waste more time discussing the issue. If the Americans or Europeans were building that same road and encountered the identical problem the solution would look radically different. Construction would likely stop immediately. The construction manager would call in the grants officer from the relevant international development agency for guidance who would then demand a written report be provided within 48 hours on why the road veered to the left 4 degrees. A second report would then be generated by the grants officer to be submitted to superiors at the appropriate embassy, prompting a conference call with headquarters in Washington, New York or Brussels. Several meetings would then be convened to discuss the environmental and financial impacts of the bend in the road. Yet another report would be generated by a far away official that would provide the necessary guidance to the grants officer back in Madagascar on how to proceed. Throughout this whole 6-8 week process (at a minimum), construction would stop indefinitely until the entire administrative process is completed to insure the project remains compliant with the respective country’s development funding guidelines.
While this is a gross oversimplification of the issue, it does highlight the key cultural difference in how the Chinese and the West approach the development process. While the Chinese process may be viewed by many in the West as “steamrolling,” it does generate results considerably faster than what comparable Western development agencies can produce. The next step for correspondents, such as Germain, is to go beyond the surface comparison between the Chinese and Western approach to aid in Africa and explore the underlying cultural differences that motivate each side. Germain’s CBC reports did a nice job flirting with this issue, but it is definitely worthy of deeper evaluation. Footnote: In addition to the text article, Germain also produced an insightful 12 minute radio piece and also took some excellent pictures that are displayed in a beautiful photo gallery format.
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