Global Policy Forum

China, BRICS And Africa: Who Really Benefits?

China’s involvement in Africa over recent years has been the subject of much scholarly and journalistic debate. Policymakers and observers have also devoted increasing attention to the emergence of multilateral cooperation between the world’s emerging economies, often abbreviated as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Some are convinced that these developments are establishing auspicious conditions for significant progress and development in Africa. Henning Melber, however, cautions against excessive optimism,noting the self-interested nature of Chinese investment. Although curent international trends may provide opportunities for Africa, Melber argues that Africa’s future is uncertain and depends on its states, leaders, and social struggles. 

By Henning Melber

April 2, 2013

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on 14 March released its Human Development Report 2013 under the heading ‘The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World’. It pointed to the impact of the so-called emerging economies (foremost China, but also India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and several others) on resource-rich African countries. The assumption is that new competition for the continent’s wealth could provide an opportunity for Africa’s development.

This hope is not that new. For several years the shifts towards multi-polarity and the effects for global economic relations have been analysed. But the discussion of the new competition for African resources pointed to both risks and opportunities. 

The trade between China and Africa rose from about US$6.5 billion in 1999 to US$160 billion in 2011, with investments amounting to US$13 billion the same year. But the old exchange patterns remained the same: primary goods were exported from Africa and manufactured commodities imported from China. In 2010 some 2 200 Chinese companies had operations in Africa. The question remains, who really benefits from this new engagement?

Chinese, who come along with businesses and often stay in search of a better life abroad, have certainly changed the realities in various parts of the continent. There are growing sentiments among the ordinary people, often bordering on racism. They feel threatened in their livelihoods, from street hawkers to construction workers. Chinese compete in economic spheres and activities in which Europeans have not been directly engaged. But Chinese people in Africa are mostly not interacting socially. This creates a notion of ‘otherness’, which makes it difficult for both sides to get familiar with each other. There are also complaints that the working conditions in Chinese companies (notably in the mining and construction sector) are worse than elsewhere. While these might be too general and simplistic stereotypes, they negatively affect relations.

The BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India China and South Africa] Summit in Durban on 26/27 March is another part of the new realities. South Africa for the first time hosts the five-member grouping. Having the world’s 29th largest economy according to the IMF, South Africa punches above its weight with the new economic giants on rank two (China), seven (Brazil), nine (Russia) and 10 (India). But South Africa is the economic powerhouse on the continent and has managed to establish businesses in many other African economies. And the alliance is not only about economy, but also about policy. An African member of BRICS is politically opportune.

Not everybody welcomes this new setting as an opportunity. A broad local alliance of social movements mobilises against the Summit in Durban and the new global powers are also critically analysed at the World Social Forum in Tunis. The protest movement campaigning against the BRICS Summit does not consider the new configuration to be of any benefit for the majority of the people. The only difference for the critics is that it sails under a South-South cooperation flag.

This is not only the concern of a radical grassroots movement. Lamido Sanusi, former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, voiced similar objections. His article published on 12 March in the Financial Times had the title ‘Africa must get real about its romance with China’. It reminded the elites that there is no reason to praise the Chinese engagement as philanthropic in the tradition of international solidarity. Chinese partnership is as much guided by self-interest as Western interaction.

The increased competition for Africa’s resources might nevertheless open opportunities for an African agenda in the interest of the people. But as the African Economic Outlook 2011, co-published by the African Development Bank, the Economic Commission for Africa, the OECD Development Centre and the UNDP diagnosed, most African countries still need to enhance their bargaining position vis-à-vis traditional and emerging partners to ensure that these partnerships are mutually beneficial.

After all, the times of the Berlin Conference 1884/5, when external powers sliced up the continent into colonial territorial entities without any meaningful participation of local agencies, are past. Decolonisation created new realities of sovereign states governed by local policy-makers. The local power constellation does play a role. There is maneuvering space and room for negotiation with any external interests. This could be used if the political will exists.   

This brings us back to the meaning and scope of governance, the role of the state, of political office bearers and civil servants. If and to which extent the majority of the African people benefit from the old and new actors on their continent depends to a large extent upon their rulers – and on their own social struggles. But it also requires the state as an actor, who should provide the arena for such struggles without being the machinery for oppression and the vehicle for the interests of a tiny elite.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.