A different view on development assistance and trade

The following was published in the Awareness Times, one of Sierra Leone’s daily newspapers, back in November 2006. I wrote it in response to an editorial entitled Thank God the Chinese have come to transform economies of disadvantaged Third World Economies.”

I read with great interest in one of your recent publications a commentary regarding improving Sino-African relations, written by Alhaji Morikeh Fofanah. Indeed, while not new, over the past decade Chinese interests on the continent have increased tremendously. His article points out several key issues that are of benefit to African countries, notably the development of infrastructure that will be key if the continent is to industrialize on a large scale, let alone provide sufficient services to its constituents.

That said I believe there are several points in his article that need further analysis. While I will not question the unfair trade subsidies that hinder the entry of African products, notably agricultural products, into the world market, nor the appropriation of natural resources in the colonial period, I do have to question several of his assumptions about both the past and present.

Chinese economic development must be looked at very carefully – the pre-1978 period was by no means a panacea of growth, one must simply look at the failed Great Leap Forward or the mass starvations under Mao. Growth has been a marked phenomenon since 1979 and the introduction of agricultural reforms. Also, China’s giant leap in terms of GDP has been tied in large part to its export-oriented growth strategy, one that today risks undermining long-term industrialization or manufacturing efforts in Africa.

While aid from China comes with no political strings attached, it is often tied to a policy of open markets whereby cheap Chinese consumer products flood African markets. If China, or any other country no matter their political or geographic circumstance, wanted to help Africa, they would not flood the market with cheap goods that employ their inhabitants at home, but rather would help establish domestic industries using domestic resources and domestic labour.

Efforts that have been made to open African exports to the world economy, such as the WTO multi-fiber agreement which gave preferential access to African textile exports, saw not African but rather Chinese, Taiwanese and Malaysian interests set up shop in Lesotho. Their entry was a massive boom to the local economy. But once the preferential agreements were lifted in early 2006 six facilities were closed and their foreign owners left the country – leaving 6,300 now unemployed. The short-term interests of foreign investors did indeed create temporary jobs, but as profits are repatriated to their home countries, one must question what the long-term impact of such a move really is? Their goal, like any other MNC, is to maximize profits and such short-term thinking will be of little value to Africa.

Furthermore, while China is indeed flying economically I must ask Alhaji Fofanah whether the country’s no-strings attached policy is as advantageous as it sounds. The struggle in the Darfur region of Sudan has been ongoing for three years. While there is blame to be placed everywhere, China is certainly not exempted. Their repeated unwillingness to support sanctions against the government of Sudan for the atrocities perpetrated against innocent civilians is of great concern to all those who value the inherent right to life and freedom. Evidently they have chosen to prioritize a supply of oil from the Sudanese government over the life of innocent Africans.

As well- Alhaji Fofanah noted in his article that “Beijing today is… better in all aspects of development compared to New York, London, Paris or Berlin.” Is it really true? Perhaps he can explain this comparative analysis better for his readers such as me. Having visited the city, and admittedly a beautiful growing city it is, I was also struck by the growing divergence of rich and poor that is very similar, if not more absolute, than in the cities he mentioned. More importantly, he should have taken readers beyond Beijing or Shanghai and into the heartland of China where the proceeds of economic development are yet to reach those ordinary Chinese. While we all hope that one day development and progress will indeed reach the entire world’s inhabitants, journalists must be sure to accurately represent the facts of the day.

And finally, the title of the piece, “Thank God the Chinese have come to transform economies of disadvantaged Third World Economies”, augers of the dependency thinking that pushes the responsibility for development away from Africans and onto others.

Why must China or the West lead Africa forward? With the continent’s riches in resources and human capital, why isn’t he imploring both politicians and constituents to step forward? Rather, he is thanking God for foreigners to coming to help “transform” the continent from its woes. China developed on its own, why can’t Africa? Such dependent thinking is no inspiration for the youths on the continent.

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