By Gao Jianbo, Zhong Feiteng, and Shu Zhan
Africa is a vast beautiful land which is thought to be the birth place of civilization. It has a total population of about 1.278 billion, which is only slightly less than that of China or India, and slightly less than twice that of Europe. Unfortunately, by the understanding of Immanuel Wallerstein’s World-systems theory, for quite some time, African countries have been considered periphery, in contrast to the core countries which are primarily comprised of the Western ones, with the hegemon in the past several decades being the United States alone. With the mire economic conditions in Africa in recent decades, it is hard, if not impossible, for Africa to contribute substantially to the further advancement of civilization. This status-quo will essentially remain for a long time if the relations of non-African countries with Africa is basically considered a zero-sum game.
Now imagine time is fast forwarding to future when Africa is as developed and rich as Europe. What an economic and consumption power Africa would be by then! However, at present, in terms of GDP, Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern, and Central Africa, which has populations of 295, 209, 391, 241, and 142 million, only amount to Finland, Poland, Switzerland, Switzerland, and Ukraine, respectively (see Table1). Therefore, the room for development in Africa is enormous, yet, the challenges ahead are also formidable.
Table1. Estimates of consumption capacity in 5 regions of Africa in 2019
In the past, the United States, some European and Asian countries, including China, have heavily engaged in helping African countries through various kind of means. China in particular, has provided helps in medical teams, commercial and concessional loans, training and scholarships, humanitarian aid, youth volunteers, debt relief, budget support, turn-key or ‘complete plant’ projects (infrastructure, factories), aid-in-kind and technical assistance, as aptly put by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In fact, since 2000, China has been one of the five largest humanitarian aid providers among non-DAC countries. Over the past two centuries, the express railways operating within and across some African countries have been built by China only recently. By the end of 2009, China had helped build nearly 200 schools across the African continent, including 2 or more primary schools for each of 53 countries in Africa. With regard to medical assistance, it is especially worth noting China’s staunch fight with Ebola in the three western African countries through the end of 2014 to the beginning of 2016, till Ebola was essentially terminated. It is argued by a group of researchers at World Bank that China’s aid and investment are good to Africa and usually more sought after by African countries, as Western assistance comes mainly in the form of outright transfers of cash and material, while Chinese assistance consists mostly of export credits and loans for infrastructure (often with little or no interest), which are fast, flexible, and largely without conditions.
Unfortunately, in a recent article, Joshua Meservey severely criticized China for building some badly needed office space for governmental employees in some African nations. He even labeled this as “palace diplomacy”. With so many constructions in Africa already finished, some still underway, and many being further planned, what is wrong for building office buildings in some African countries, some of which still have to pay rent to their former colonial suzerains even today?
To help make Africa prosperous, it is critical to rely on science and development-oriented international cooperation. Concerned with whether Sino-African trade may have exacerbated resource dependence in Africa, a researcher in Turkey, Dr. Alexis Habiyaremye, found that by helping African countries reduce existing infrastructure bottlenecks, resources-for-infrastructure swap deals enabled African countries to increase their diversification capacity. As the case in Angola, Sub-Saharan Africa has recorded unusually strong growth rates. The finding can be readily corroborated by the following graphs, which shows (Fig.~1) that export is strongly positively correlated with GDP across the nations in the African continent, and Chinese trade with African countries has increased dramatically in recent years (Fig.~2), and thus has made significant contributions to stimulate the growth in Africa. Indeed, without external assistance, the economy in Africa would largely be stagnant, and easily hammered by natural disasters and social shocks.
Fig. 1 The relationship between per capita GDP and per capita exports of African countries in 2018. Source: World Bank’s World Development indicators data.
Fig. 2 Temporal variation of African trade volume and percentage with China from 2005 to 2020. The variations in the red curves, especially the sharp drops around 2015, were mainly caused by crashes in crude oil prices. Source: International Trade Centre (ITC)
However, it is hard, if not impossible, for the West to provide no-string-attached assistance to Africa at the present time, due to the high cost and associated risks accompanying the projects the West would offer. Not constrained by having to make short-term profits as well as being able to manage labor cost, China is one of the very few countries at present that can still afford to provide largely condition-free assistance to African countries. Moreover, as a developing country, China is one of the fastest growing countries in the world to have changed from low-income to high-income. An important experience in facilitating China’s rapid development is the emphasis of infrastructure construction in the early stage of development. Surely, China has also obtained assistance in capital, technology and management from the World Bank and multilateral institutions in improving infrastructure construction. China is willing to share this experience with its African brothers.
The earth is just a pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan sentimentally puts it: “On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives …… every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. With natural disasters, including earthquakes, tropical cyclones, tornadoes, flooding, droughts, locust plagues, forest fires –many of which have been induced by extreme weathers caused by climate change, occurring in far greater intensity and frequency than before, and especially COVID-19 still ravaging in USA, Latin America, India, Africa, among other nations, it is the very time to stop politicizing everything. With great determination and sacrifice by its citizens and foreigners dwelling in China, COVID-19 pandemic has been largely under control in China. How wonderful would it have been if the whole world is free of the virus in a few months. This calls for a global concerted effort, however. Similarly, when the development of Africa is concerned, the whole world must come together and make synergistic efforts.
Gao Jianbo is Professor of Geographical Science at Beijing Normal University
Zhong Feiteng is Professor at National Institute of International Strategy, CASS
Shu Zhan is Director of Center for African Studies, China Foundation for International Studies