As a political economy major, I try to read the news and keep up to date on trends throughout the developed and developing world. One of the most important (and, in many ways, unsung) trends affecting development in the world today has been China’s massive investment in Africa. Like the great powers preceding it, China has reaped huge benefits from investing in Africa in terms of both energy extraction and business development. But has China’s presence benefited any Africans? That is the question that a new article, written by Stephen Haggard, tries to ascertain. As with most development issues, the answer is complex, and hugely variable from country to country.
I’ll start with the negatives. China has shown few qualms about working with some of Africa’s most repressive and violent dictatorships, even in the face of international condemnation, if they can gain access to energy sources in return. The Chinese Communist Party gained access to Sudan’s considerable oil reserves in exchange for arming its genocidal regime, and enjoyed close ties to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in exchange for extractive contracts there. These policies inexcusably granted economic lifelines to some of the world’s worst leaders and allowed them to continue stifling development in their own countries as they enriched themselves. Even in countries with less destructive governments, China has shown little genuine commitment to development, concerned instead with satisfying the wishes of national leaders, who often lack the expertise (or political will) to demand development projects that work effectively. The result has been a heavy emphasis on infrastructure. China has received contracts to build roads, bridges, and dams all over Africa which, while important and perhaps very helpful, does little to improve the lives of Africans at a grassroots level.
But this may all be changing, and much of this change stems from a shift in focus to ICT4D. As popular opinion in many African countries begins to turn against China’s presence (though still generally somewhat favorable, complaints about poor working conditions at Chinese firms and its willingness to arm rogue states like Sudan have become major political issues in some African countries), China has begun to make a more concerted effort to work with Africans themselves, and not just their leaders. The early results have been very promising, and have shown a surprising prioritization of e-learning. Haggard cites the case of Kenya, where China has agreed to supply every Kenyan secondary school with IT suites containing with 25 PCs and internet access. Though one could worry that this amounts to little more than dropping off hardware, it could also provide newfound connectivity to a country containing some of the world’s most remote peoples.
During this shift, China has shown a newfound willingness to survey the needs of African development, rather than simply appeasing African leaders. It will, for the first time, send a delegate to this year’s eLearning Africa conference to present on the successes of eLearning in China and to discuss how these successes can be exported to Africa. It also agreed to fund an $8 million African training initiative led by UNESCO. While $8 million may seem like a relatively paltry sum, it is representative of a larger change in how China views its role in Africa and what policies it will pursue in the future to work with, rather than separately from (or against) grassroots development and education in Africa. China’s growth as an economy and society over the last 30 years has been, in effect, the most effective poverty reduction program in human history. If China can export its development lessons to Africa (and sees it in its own interests to do so), the potential impact is difficult to overstate. By focusing on eLearning, China seems to be taking a step in the right direction–and greatly enhancing the impact of ICT4D as a field of development.