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Foreign Policy: The African Quantity

August 26, 2020

Africa, the vast and beautiful land thought to be the birthplace of civilization, has a population of about 1.28 billion, a little less than that of China or India. And yet, according to Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory, African countries have long been considered peripheral to world affairs, unlike the core countries that are mainly in the West and headed by the United States, the global hegemon of the past several decades.

Mired in troubled economies, it is hard, if not impossible, for them to contribute substantially to the further advancement of civilization. This status-quo will remain entrenched if relations of non-African countries are basically considered a zero-sum game.

We can imagine a future in which Africa is as developed and rich as Europe. What an economic engine and consumption power it would be by then! However, at present, in terms of GDP, the five regions of Africa — East, South, West, North and Central — are equivalent, respectively, to the GDP of Finland, Poland, Switzerland, Switzerland (again), and Ukraine (see Table 1). The room for development in Africa is enormous, and yet the challenges ahead are also formidable.

In the past, the United States, along with some European and Asian countries, including China, have engaged heavily in helping African countries through various means. China in particular, has provided help in medicine, commercial and concessional loans, training and scholarships, humanitarian aid, youth volunteers, debt relief, budget support, turnkey projects (infrastructure, factories), aid-in-kind and technical assistance.

In fact, since 2000, China has been one of the five largest humanitarian aid providers among non-DAC countries. Over the past two decades, express railways operating within and across some African countries have been built by China. By the end of 2009, China had helped build nearly 200 schools across the African continent, including two or more primary schools for each of the continent’s 53 countries. With regard to medical assistance, it is especially worth noting China’s staunch fight against Ebola in the three West African countries from the end of 2014 to the beginning of 2016, when Ebola was essentially eliminated.

 It has been argued by a group of researchers at the World Bank that China’s aid and investment are good things for Africa and usually preferred by African countries. Chinese assistance consists mostly of export credits and loans for infrastructure (often at little or no interest), which are fast, flexible and largely without conditions.

In a recent article, Joshua Meservey of the Heritage Foundation criticized China for building some badly needed office space for government employees in some African nations. He called it “palace diplomacy.” But with so much construction in Africa already finished, some projects still underway and many others in planning, what is wrong with building offices in some African countries, some of which still have to pay rent to their former colonial suzerains even today?

To help Africa prosper, 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, deals swapping natural resources for infrastructure have enabled African countries to diversify. As in Angola, Sub-Saharan Africa has recorded unusually strong growth rates. The finding can be readily corroborated. Exports are strongly correlated with GDP across the nations of the African continent (Fig. 1), and Chinese trade with African countries has increased dramatically in recent years (Fig. 2), both significant contributors to growth. Indeed, without external assistance, the economies of Africa would have a more difficult path that is easily impeded by natural disasters and social shocks.

However, it is hard, if not impossible, for the West to provide assistance to Africa with no strings attached at the present time because of the high costs and associated risks accompanying the projects the West would offer. Unconstrained by the need for short-term profit and well able to manage labor costs, China is one of the few countries at present that can still afford to provide largely condition-free assistance to Africa.

Moreover, as a developing country, China has made one of the fastest transitions from low-income to moderately high-income. An important contributor to China’s rapid development was its emphasis on infrastructure construction in the early stages of development. Surely, China has obtained a lot of invaluable assistance in capital, technology and management skill from the World Bank and multilateral institutions for infrastructure construction. It is willing to share this experience with its African brothers.

Earth is just a pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan sentimentally put it:

“On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ 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 weather caused by climate change, occurring in far greater intensity and frequency than before — and especially COVID-19 still ravaging the United States, Latin America, India, Africa and other places, it is time to stop politicizing everything.

With great determination and sacrifice by its citizens, China brought the COVID-19 pandemic under control. How wonderful would it have been if the whole world were free of the virus in a few months? It can be done, but it calls for a concerted global effort. Similarly, where the development of Africa is concerned, the whole world must come together and coordinate efforts. 


Gao Jianbo

Professor of Geographical Science, Beijing Normal University

Zhong Feiteng

Professor, National Institute of International Strategy, CASS

Shu Zhan

Director of Center for African Studies, China Foundation for International Studies

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