非洲 Africa

This week, I would like to “converge” the business (latest post:政策 policy) and cultural (木末芙蓉花 on branches’ tips, hibiscus flowers) sides.

Actually, this post is just a book review and some expansion on ideas that I shared months ago about Chinese businesses abroad (Chinese companies abroad: the 国家电网公司 case in Brazil): in that case, it was all started by rethinking to an article on a Brazilian business magazine in Portuguese that I had bought in my first (and for the time being, only) business trip to Brazil- just an expansion of my PMO role for a customer, but anyway based on what I had done in the past for other companies as a management consultant.

Well, the Chinese President recently visited Italy, and I was surprised to read his article (an English summary from Xinhua, in Italian) referring to the “evergreen tree of friendship between Italy and China”- while reportedly said to Chinese students in Italy to blend Chinese and Italian cultures in their studies.

It is a first step- and maybe my fellow Italians will actually accept that being acknowledged as the centre of design and innovation, thanks also to the continuous exposure to art from millennia can deliver, if you just look at it (as an art critic who has been also holding office, Philippe Daverio, said), in terms of your ability to look beyond what a superficial first glance can deliver.

It is the “win-win” approach, the same approach that was repeatedly discussed within the book that I would like to share few ideas about today (Serge Michel, Michel Beuret “La Chinafrique. Pékin à la conquête du continent noir”).

It is an interesting book- probably a little bit old (2008, updated in 2009), if you consider how fast things evolved in Africa (e.g. the new state resulting from Sudan, or the wave of Arab Springs, ISIS and its connections inheriting from Al-Qaeda the concepts, but trying to create a physical state, etc.).

Nonetheless, it contains much more information that I ever derived from reading “Le Monde Diplo” about what is going on in Africa.

Overall, the book is quite balanced- and while it sometimes takes the traditional Western grandstanding approach to both Africa and China, its authors remember to remind readers of what other foreign countries did in the past.

Few elements worth sharing, if you are unwilling to read few hundred pages (I do not know about your reading habits, but as I convert what I read in pictures, it takes much longer to read a book replete with people, descriptions of places and events, than a mere essay or business book).

First: Africa was considered a lost continent, and even Western diplomats quoted within the book admitted that, whatever will happen in the end, by delivering physical infrastructure (i.e. cash plus people and, as a side-effect, knowledge-transfer), China in few years single-handedly was able to deliver what we, Europeans, failed to do since we were first colonizers, then “gave freedom”- and started our neocolonialist phase; it is a “whatever it takes” to resurrect the endogenous growth of the continent with the youngest population (by age range), and just in the middle of the world.

Second, that infrastructure and the natural resources that it gives access to have a side-effect, i.e. a vested interest of China to act as a diplomatic broker to obtain peace (the book states that China gets 30% of its oil from Africa) and cooperate on global issues.

Third, by transferring working people instead of just cash and few experts safely secluded within the confines of luxury hotels, some issues can arise, but at the same time this can expose both China and African countries to different ways of doing- a mutual cultural growth.

There are few additional elements: by building a local infrastructure that is ready for the XXI century (from electric lines to laying down fiber-optic cables, to railway roads and highways), China is actually preparing for something else: expanding its own internal consumer market would need consumer goods, and increasing Chinese salaries in China to a point where, probably, it will become cheaper to import consumer goods from Chinese-African companies working in Africa, nearby the natural resources used to produce those products, than in China.

Obviously, I sidelined the discussions about democracy, etc.- as we from the West have been talking a lot about democracy, but, for example, Saddam Hussein and a long list of African or Latin American dictators were our allies (in some cases, mere placeholders), and even on the immigration from our former colonies we still have to stop preaching and start delivering something that makes sense.

I remember from my study and number crunching on Rwanda in 2008 to help setup a start-up that one of the issues blocking development was what we take for granted: roads and access to information

The concept? If you give people a fish, they will eat for a day; if you teach them to fish, they can feed themselves each day.

Democracy implies having opportunities- but if you give the right to vote without giving the right to choose, as you have to struggle to survive and have access to basic education, water, basic healthcare, and access to a market for your products or services, the right to vote is not going to fill your stomach- except maybe around election day, when you can actually sell your vote in exchange of some food.

Once you deliver opportunities, obviously the risk is that you will lose control- but, in the end, if your focus is accessing the benefits, then probably it is better to have access to a smaller slice of a larger pie, than have to cope with a tiny pie that you have to routinely subsidize and control.

If you read books about institutional and economic development in Africa as I did since the 1970s, talking also with African students and expatriates (e.g. I remember an engineering student from Madagascar that I met on a travel to Genoa, Italy, about 30 years ago, and a Rwandan in Brussels in 2010, or a presentation of the African Laser Centre in Brussels), you probably share my frustration at too much talks, and “professionals in despair”, i.e. those who seem to have made a living of going around to talk about African disasters, but seem to never work on delivering something (and that’s why in 2008 on that initiative I referred to above I worked for free).

We had decades of “raising awareness”- but underfunded initiatives and supporting corrupt governments that never delivered was the main result of all those “raising funds cocktails”: but how good and civilized we felt by attending them…

What you will derive from the book is that China presence in Africa isn’t up to the “ideal standard” that some demand (but never obtain) from Western countries working with their former colonies- there are some flies within the ointment.

But it is anyway a step forward (or a return to the past, as I remember reading about Chinese presence in and exchanges with Africa long before modern times, e.g. R. D. Sawyer “The Tao Of Spycraft: Intelligence Theory And Practice In Traditional China”).

Western countries- could compete with China in Africa- but the game is fairly different from the one that was available during the Cold War and post-Cold War neo-neocolonialist phase: as China delivered in Africa a useful asset- it created competition between donors.

For the time being… have a nice week!

PS Please read the introduction to understand how to use this website 🙂

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