‘A whiff of colonialism’? China’s wild rush into Africa

china_in_africa_aid_borgenFor nearly a decade, as China made a historic push for business opportunities and expanded influence in Africa, most of the continent’s leaders were so thrilled at having a deep-pocketed partner willing to make big investments that they rarely paused to consider whether they were getting a sound deal, analyst Howard French writes for The New York Times:

China has peppered the continent with newly built stadiums, airports, hospitals, highways and dams, but as Africans are beginning to fully recognize, these projects have also left many countries saddled with heavy debts and other problems, from environmental conflict to labor strife. As a consequence, China’s relationship with the continent is entering a new and much more skeptical phase.

But now Beijing confronts “skepticism from Africa’s own increasingly vibrant civil society, which is demanding to know what China’s billions of dollars in infrastructure building, mineral extraction and land acquisition mean for the daily lives and political rights of ordinary Africans,” notes French, the author of China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa:

This represents a tricky and unfamiliar challenge for China’s authoritarian system, whose foreign policy has always focused heavily on state-to-state relations. China’s leaders demonstrate little appreciation of the yawning gulfs that separate African people from their rulers, even in newly democratic countries. Beijing is constitutionally uneasy about dealing with independent actors like advocacy groups, labor unions and independent journalists.

He cites an op-ed essay in The Financial Times by Lamido Sanusi, recently suspended as Nigeria’s central bank governor, who wrote: “In much of Africa, they have set up huge mining operations. They have also built infrastructure. But, with exceptions, they have done so using equipment and labor imported from home, without transferring skills to local communities. So China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.”

The best way for Western democracies to respond is not by warning Africans about the advance of China — but rather, helping to strengthen African civil society and, thereby, governance, French contends:

Washington should also encourage China and other up-and-coming players in the international economy, from Brazil to Turkey to Vietnam, to abide by higher transparency standards — and to rigorously abide by them, too.

In the end, though, what will minimize any downsides of China’s involvement in Africa is the deepening of African democracy. Grass-roots activism and vibrant independent media are, everywhere, the ultimate check on corrupt legislators and on foreigners who get lucrative but unsound deals by handing over bags of cash.


Howard W. French is an associate professor of journalism at Columbia University, a former correspondent for The New York Times.

Remembering Joel Barkan

Jennifer Cooke, the Africa Program Director at the Center for International and Strategic Studies has published a moving tribute to a leading Africa specialist and advocate for democracy in the sub-continent:

We are all deeply saddened by the sudden loss of Joel D. Barkan, a long-standing senior associate of the CSIS Africa Program and an internationally recognized expert on African political and economic development. Joel passed away on January 10 while on a family vacation to Mexico City. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Joel’s wife, Sandy, his two children, Bronwyn and Josh, his grandchildren, Arlo and Gabriel, and his mother, Theresa Barkan Willets.

Joel’s knowledge of African political affairs was rooted in more than 45 years of teaching, research, and travel throughout Africa—in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. He had an abiding passion for Kenya, where he first traveled in 1962, and was skilled not only in understanding and conveying the complexities of Kenyan political dynamics, but also in seeking practical ways to support democratic consolidation and empower voices of reform.

Unlike many Africanist scholars of his generation, Joel embraced—and actively shaped—both the worlds of academics and foreign policy. After serving for three years on the faculty of the University of California Irvine, Joel joined the University of Iowa in Iowa City in 1972. In 1992, he went on to serve as the first regional democracy and governance adviser for eastern and southern Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Over many years, he advised USAID, the UK Department for International Development, the UN Development Program, the National Democratic Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the World Bank…..

Joel touched a wide ranging community of African and Africanist scholars, practitioners, and policymakers. He was a generous mentor of young professionals with an interest in African affairs, an optimist, and a refreshing straight-talker with a wry sense of humor and irony. Joel was tireless in reminding us all of Africa’s countless possibilities and the enduring responsibilities that Americans have to know and engage Africa seriously. (Read the rest.)

Activists are also paying tribute to the memory of a staunch advocate of African democracy.

Joel was a major contributor to the World Movement for Democracy Project on “Assessing Democracy Assistance,” funded by the UN Democracy Fund. He conducted an online survey of democracy assistance recipients which revealed a healthy realism about the capacity of external actors to impact democratic prospects. Assistance can facilitate change, for example, by helping enable local actors and organizations, the survey suggested, but it is ultimately local factors and forces that determine prospects for democratization.

He was a co-principal investigator for the African Legislatures Project (ALP), a comparative study of legislative institutions in 17 African countries funded by DfID, the Heinrich Boll Foundation, USAID and the World Bank and based at the University of Cape Town. 

In addition to spending time as a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the NED, he was a frequent contributor to the Journal of Democracy and served on the Research Council of the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies. His articles for the JOD included: Kenya’s 2013 Elections: Technology Is Not Democracy, Democracy Assistance: What Recipients Think, Progress and Retreat in Africa: Legislatures on the Rise? and Democratic Experiments in Africa: Regime Transitions in Comparative Perspective.

Joel was also an enthusiastic and knowledgeable fan of African music, including the work of Hugh Masekela (see below).

He will be sorely missed.