China's science experiments can only benefit Africans

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 April, 2010, 12:00am

This week, representatives of dozens of African nations have gathered in Beijing to launch a broad programme of scientific initiatives with China. Besides addressing the usual issues about trade, finance and concessional loans, details of the first large-scale Sino-African joint research programme will also be ironed out.

From clean energy and sustainable agriculture to scientific exchange and training, both sides aim to go beyond the usual business or infrastructure projects - desperately needed though many of them are in underdeveloped economies across the continent - to invest in intellectual capital.

Already, critics are sharpening their knives, denouncing the projects as, at best, useless and, at worst, more excuses to exploit Africa. Somehow, in many places in the West, from the corridors of power to grass-roots NGOs, there seems to be a desperate fear that China's long-term aid and investment in Africa might succeed.

The gathering, which falls under the auspices of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation, will launch about 100 clean-energy projects and another 100 science and engineering programmes in various hi-tech fields. There will be training and financing for 100 African post-doctoral students to conduct research in China and the building of 20 agricultural centres over the next three years.

In addition, up to 2,000 African technicians will be trained in agricultural technology for breeding, irrigation and fisheries management. There will also be joint research programmes to share ideas in development economics.

The goals are fairly straightforward and conventional when it comes to science education and technology transfer. But they are enough to infuriate some people. Writing in an online debate sponsored by The Economist, George Ayittey, an economics professor at the American University in Washington DC, repeated the well-rehearsed criticism. '[China's] real intentions are well known: to elbow out all foreign companies and gain access to Africa's resources at cheap prices.'

That's true but, then, so are Japan, India, South Korea, Germany, France and the US, which, incidentally, has been and remains the continent's largest arms supplier. It's not called the scramble for Africa's resources for nothing. No one claims that China offers aid for free or out of sheer kindness. The question is what it has to offer in return.

Projects in science, technology and engineering should at least be innocuous. It would be hard to claim that such efforts were neo-imperialist. Since 2006, China has helped train 15,000 African technicians and scientists. Twenty-six hospitals are being constructed in some of Africa's poorest regions, and 30 centres have been built for the prevention and treatment of malaria - all these costing 500 million yuan (HK$596 million).

What is wrong with China playing a bigger role in international aid and science education? Inevitably, there will be wastage and corruption in such efforts - we are, after all, talking about co-operation between developing countries, and China is still a developing economy. Beijing no doubt wants to secure goodwill among citizens and governments in Africa. It should be up to Africans to decide who to accept aid from and how to exploit resources and capital from outsiders.

It has always seemed strange to me that most Western donors demand high standards of governance and anti-corruption as conditionalities for aid. They are the outcomes of a successful economy, not its preconditions. If a poor country could offer such high standards, it wouldn't need help in the first place. Even if only some of the intended African scientists and students - and only a few economic sectors - benefit from the latest efforts, they will have been worth it.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post