China in Africa: Dambisa Moyo fails to uncover a more complex situation

By IndepthAfrica
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Jul 2nd, 2012
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by Jolyon Ford at Oxford Analytica

In June 27’s New York Times, well-known African aid sceptic Dambisa Moyo attempted a corrective analysis. I will leave the reader to make their own minds up on her statement, in the context of legitimacy issues, that ‘despite all the scaremongering, China’s motives for investing in Africa are actually quite pure’.

What struck me about the piece was its failure — for someone so publicly committed both to the uplift of the continent and to dispelling false narratives which currently prevail — to interrogate some rather basic questions that go beyond headline investment and trade figures in the China-in-Africa story.

That story is both captivating and complex, but inputs like Moyo’s risk missing the point. An op-ed about new foreign investment in Africa in the last decade would do better by asking questions, rather than buying into narratives about strategic gaming by major powers and its incidental benefits for Africans.

What is the real story of the upsurge in investment, whatever its source? Has the quality of African growth (that is, the structural diversity of its sources) been improved by such investment, or has only the quantity of growth improved, on otherwise largely unchanged axes?

How much capital leaves Africa each week — by licit or illicit means — whatever the succession of stories of capital coming in? How inclusive has the new growth been, and what has acted to off-set its supposed benefits?

To what extent have inflationary effects nullified the local livelihood and wealth gains of recent years, whatever the high GDP figures involved?

As a rather blunt measure of national income, does annualised GDP indeed give an accurate measure of the net effect on a country’s national wealth produced by the export of unprocessed finite resources?

What has really been the net effect of the wave of African investment stories on local job-creation?

Has Africa escaped indebtedness to Western and multilateral creditors only to incur a different kind of debt to China, or escaped ‘conditionality’ only for its untried cousin, ‘non-conditionality’?

Is it perhaps too soon to say what China’s aggregate impact on African economies, societies and governance might be?

Moyo has made her points on the negative effects of Western aid on Africa previously and fairly well. Her op-ed last week is useful in pointing out, if it needed to be repeated, that the China-in-Africa investment story is, indeed, not all bad news for the continent and its people. Chinese firms aren’t necessarily less well behaved in Africa than Western ones, nor are Beijing’s motives necessarily less salutary than those of Paris, London or Washington (although it is five years — and a certain US presidential change — since the Pew data she cites on comparative African attitudes to US and Chinese investors was compiled).

It is also hard to fault Moyo’s point that the blame for corruption, destruction or exploitation lies as much, if not more, with African governments’ failure to pursue the national interest as it does with foreign actors (Chinese or otherwise). And hers was a media piece, a bit like this blog, not a serious analytical study of the issue.

But before one can say that Beijing is overall a ‘boon for Africa’, someone like Moyo should acknowledge there are other, more complex, calculations involved in making that judgment. She could easily have made her ‘correcting the negative narrative’ point while still mentioning some structural problems that Chinese investment alone will not address, and which it may only exacerbate and distort.

To paraphrase Louis MacNeice, investors’ motives are rarely pure, but the worst of all deceits is to turn away from the real issues from Africa’s perspective. By so doing, Moyo has perhaps simply joined the bandwagon, back-and-forth China-good-or-bad-in-Africa debate, so missing the opportunity to ask more important questions that look behind Africa’s high headline rates of growth.

Jolyon Ford is senior analyst (Africa) at Oxford Analytica. These are his own views.

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