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China in Africa: The Transparency Paradox

Transparency is a loaded word in the development business.  The idea that aid and investments in places like Africa should be subject to external audits and review is a sacrosanct principle within the industry.  Never mind the irony that organizations like USAID, the United Nations and the World Bank among others devote a majority of their time/effort with their aid programs to sorting through a byzantine bureaucracy that is anything but transparent — nonetheless, these very organizations maintain the “black box” that is China’s aid and investment agenda in Africa is alarming.   However, transparency can cut both ways and ultimately the West may regret its insistence that China pull back the curtain.The issue first came to my attention in Kinshasa at the posh athletic club “Cercle Elais” where I was enjoying an afternoon drink by the pool.  Sitting behind me were a pair of European construction executives who were seemingly drowning their sorrows in pint after pint of lager.  The two echoed a story detailed in the compelling book “China Safari” by complaining loudly over their inability to compete with Chinese construction firms who submitted bids 50-60% lower than everyone else.  ”There’s just no way we can compete,” one declared, “yeah, we’re fucked,” the other slurred.  Now, the interesting part of this story is who these two accused of screwing up their business in the DRC.  It didn’t seem like they blamed the Chinese.  No.  Instead, it was the World Bank and MONUC (the United Nations operation in the DRC)!

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