In Praise of the Chinese in Africa

Africa’s hope?

Western aid budgets are generally tied to commitments from third-world governments to behave as far as environmental destruction or human rights are concerned, and to spend at least some of the moolah on their people rather than their wives’s shoe collection or at the Mogadishu Mercedes Benz dealership. The Chinese are criticised for plundering the natural resources of Africa without requiring such sops to the conscience of the affluent, but at least their engagement in Africa can be called “investment” and is refreshingly free of leftist cant.

I’ve argued before that the CAP is responsible for more human suffering than the Second World War, and whilst Europeans and Americans are feather-bedding their farmers, they are preventing Africans getting their cash-crops to rich-world Markets. This means that roads and infrastructure to get cash crops out aren’t built and when the crop fails, there are no roads to distribute the food aid, and everyone dies because they are still subsistence agriculturalists or pastorialists rather than steadily specialising and developing in a productive economy. Famines are rarely about failures of crops, they are usually about failures of distribution. They are also about incentives, as Communist ideologically inspired famines of the 20th century showed.

Chinese engineers are overseeing the building of a Road network and railways that are designed to get raw materials to the market. Plundering Africa of its mineral wealth if you like. But nothing’s going to stop those roads distributing aid in time of famine or allowing farmers to distribute surplus in times of plenty. Likewise mobile phone networks are cheap to build and allow communication by farmers about prices for goods in various nearby towns. These networks will follow the mining engineers’ roads too. This allows, paradoxically, farmers to benefit from higher average prices, and consumers from lower average prices. The difference being lower wastage. Roads also allow medicines, and and effective cold-chain to deliver vaccines to the poor (A rare genuine good done by NGOs and development aid) more effectively.

Much Western development aid does not seem to realise that economic activity is like water, it flows down the path of least resistance. You cannot just give clean water if there is no economy to sustain its infrastructure in the long-term. You just create dependency. A road is only going to be maintained if there is an economic rationale like a mine or cash crop to sustain it.

If western governments spent less time worrying about their aid budgets as a percentage of GDP to appease ignorant hand-wringers in Guardian editorials, and allowed the third world to sell food to us instead, there would be an economy in the poor parts of Africa to develop with in the first place. Without the primary industries giving the rationale for basic infrastructure, there will be no economy, and people in parts of Africa will remain miserable supplicants of western charity. If William Kamkwamba and his family were able to sell stuff in a productive economy, they wouldn’t need to scrape together the resources for a solitary windmill and Poppy Spalding wouldn’t be able to bleat about “the world’s poor” after her gap year of misery tourism. If Africa was allowed to trade on equal terms with the west rather than suffer from dumping of Agricultural produce destroying local markets, and were instead allowed to sell maize to us, then NGO wallahs wouldn’t be cruising around in Air-Conditioned Toyotas distributing largesse like a feudal baron’s consiglieri. But I think the NGO wallahs like being the big man, because (with one or two exceptions) they don’t seem to argue for free trade.

So. China raping the continent for its mineral wealth is likely to do more good for the people of Africa than the entirety of western Aid budgets (which in the case of the British Coalition exists behind a budget ring-fence for reasons of political expediency rather than the greater good). It is ironic that Communist China realises that Trade not Aid is the way to develop Africa and raise its people out of poverty. Whilst America and the European Union subsidise agriculture to the tune of twice African GDP, the twin holocausts famine and Malaria in Africa will continue.

7 replies
  1. indigomyth
    indigomyth says:

    //Western aid budgets are generally tied to arms deals commitments from third-world governments to behave as far as environmental destruction or human rights are concerned,//

    //and is refreshingly free of leftist cant.//

    Are Human Rights "leftist cant"? Is the right to freedom of speech "leftist"?

  2. Simon
    Simon says:

    Whilst I agree about the outcomes I'm far from convinced that the Chinese are being altruistic.

    I'd also dispute your claim that mobile phone networks are cheap to build. Having planned and built a few, including Africa, I can assure that they aren't.

  3. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    indigomyth: No. Human rights are a good thing, but next to the horrors of the CAP, western aid is a sticking plaster on a gunshot wound. The leftist cant is seeing Aid as a sort of international welfare state.

    Mobile phone infrastructure is cheaper than fixed line infrastructure, is it not?

  4. Simon
    Simon says:

    Its a few years since I did a detailed comparison but the answer is eventually yes, the eventually being dependent on take up rates and handset subsidies. That doesn't mean its cheap, just cheaper.

    Mobile's main advantage is to quickly cover a large area. Its disadvantage is that it will never match fixed lines for internet speeds in a high take up area.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Good piece.

    Seems like the West, having in time past rodded China out of isolation in the name of the free market, is going to have to relearn capitalism from it. 'Communist' China, no less.

    If irony was made of strawberries, we'd all be drinking a lot of smoothies right now.


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