China and Africa

Anyone who follows me on twitter (which I highly recommend) has likely seen their feed blow up in the past day with posts about China and what it’s doing in Africa. Before I get into that too much, a little background for those of you who don’t speak International Relations.

Beijing Consensus– China’s foreign policy of business first, second, third and always. Meaning, Chinese investment in developing nations is solely to promote their own economic and political standing within the current system of international political economy. The strategy is to give loans and aid packages to developing nations which are backed by any number of different natural resources. This is coupled by a “non-interference” policy where they pretty much let the governments of those nations do what they want, as long as they fulfill their commitments.

Washington Consensus– US foreign policy to promote good governance (reforms favoring a more democratic system) in exchange for foreign aid and development opportunity. This includes the liberalization of markets within said developing nations (privatization, elimination of trade barriers, etc.).

My summary of these two ideas is a gross over simplification, however, you get the main idea. China= business while US= furthering ideas of liberal democracy.

So, in theory, with the liberalization of markets and the move toward more democratically run states should come the prospering of these societies within Africa and other developing nations, right? It all sounds good, but when you look at who is making the most out of their relationship with the African continent, the answer is no.

According to a WSJ article, as of 2007, China is now Africa’s largest trading partner. China’s economy has had an annual growth of around 9% for the last 10-15 years and needs extensive energy and natural resources in order for it’s economic juggernaut to keep going full steam. Seeing the massive potential in both these areas, China now exports around 30% of its crude oil from Africa and has struck deals with nations like the DRC, Gabon, Sudan, South Africa, and others to gain more access to natural resources.

Here are a few reasons why economic partnerships with Africa (and African nations individually) are a good idea for the US.

1. Oil- Nigeria and a few other nations have ignored OPEC quota limits in the past, especially during past oil shocks. Nigerian, and arguably other African oil resources, are very pure and need a minimal amount of refining. Also, with all African oil states, there is no Straight of Hormuz to be concerned about.

2. Abundant Resources- We all know that Africa, depending on the region, has an abundance of raw materials (which China, as stated above, has made loans to backed by copper, food-stuffs or other materials). This is quite important, but one other major area to look at, is the abundance of eager workers. There are thousands of Africans looking to better their situations, get out of subsistence living, and send their children to school. All they need is training.

The US, and Europe for that matter, have long-standing historical relationships with many African nations (for better or worse). What these powers ought to do is follow China’s lead. There is no sense in demanding changes and reforms in a nation that (1) has no interest in making the changes, (2) might not even understand why the changes are a good thing, and (3) do not have an educated enough populace to sustain democratic ideals.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that Africans are not smart, some of the most intelligent people I have the pleasure of associating with are from Nigeria, Angola, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. What I am saying, is that in order to sustain a successful democracy there has to be wide-spread education, which there is not in many African nations (although it’s getting considerably better).

I may not have a ton of experience here, but from my perspective, (as I have written in a previous post as well) it is development which paves the way for democratization. When people have the time to read, formulate their own opinions and act on them is when democracy can flourish. Democracy is not a commodity that can be exported, it is something which must be grown at home with specific cultural nuances tailor-fit to each area. This is why going in, providing resource backed loans; building schools, roads, hospitals, electrical grids, water systems, and other forms of infrastructure is so crucial.

As I mentioned before, there is an abundance of ready and able workers in developing nations who simply lack the training to do these kinds of education-required jobs. African nations have even showed anger and discontent about Chinese companies undercutting domestic firms for these type of jobs and have put in stipulations that Chinese must sub-contract certain percentages of the work they do as well as provide training to the domestic workers.

This type of thing is what America can do best. We are excellent at training and teaching individuals to work and fend for themselves. The American dream is that of someone pulling themselves up by their own grit and determination, just give them the opportunity. What people in Africa want is not just some foreign power coming in, taking their resources, and telling them how t run their government. They want to be able to do what these other nations are doing, and they’re willing to work for it if given the chance.

America can still win the trade battle for Africa, we just need to be smarter about it and realize that development in itself will lead to the democratization that we’re looking for.

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