China making positive contribution to Africa

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 July, 2008, 12:00am

Like most issues concerning the rise of China today, the debate over its investment drive across Africa has become, at times, highly acrimonious and ideologically driven. Beijing and its defenders argue that the investments and preferential loans it is pouring into sub-Saharan Africa are helping some of the world's poorest countries develop much-needed infrastructure and expand their economies. No, say many western governments and aid agencies, China is ignoring human rights, corruption, environmental degradation and, in the case of Sudan, possible genocide. In more extreme criticism, the Middle Kingdom has been accused of pursuing a neo-imperialist agenda, driven by its insatiable need for oil and other commodities.

The latest report by the World Bank brings a more balanced and evidence-based judgment to the overheated debate. Its conclusion is that yes, China is helping to spearhead a massive infrastructure revolution critical to spurring growth and reducing poverty in the continent. But it is not the only emerging economy making this contribution, although it is by far the most significant player. India and oil-rich Middle Eastern states are also investing heavily and helping to lay a new foundation for growth across Africa. The World Bank report is part of a newly emerging discourse that is replacing the old western-centred foreign-aid paradigm. It is more willing to acknowledge the constructive roles China and other emerging countries play in encouraging long-term economic development on the continent. For example, the bank points to the beneficial match between Africa's resource-rich countries with underdeveloped infrastructure and China's highly competitive construction industry.

Many outside critics write as if China's involvement in Africa is new, when it has long had a significant presence there. What is different now is that it is primarily driven by economic needs rather than ideological or diplomatic relations. No country ever pursues a completely selfless foreign policy, but the World Bank argues foreign investment driven by sound economic policy can be mutually beneficial between nations. Many positive trends are evident that put Africa in a much more favourable position than it has been in a long while. Real growth in gross domestic product in the sub-Saharan region averaged 4.1 per cent between 1997 and 2002; last year, it jumped to 6.6 per cent. The number of armed conflicts and civil wars has dropped significantly in the past decade. Adventurous hedge funds and investment houses are comparing the region to East Asia in the 1970s and are betting with their own money. This makes China one of the more prescient investors in sub-Sahara.

Ending Africa's abject poverty can be humanity's great achievement in this century; China and the west should contribute to this endeavour together, instead of bickering over it.