14 January 2013

Africa: China a Catalyst to Africa's Development


Chris Alden believes China has proved a catalyst to development in Africa by smashing the Western donor stranglehold on the continent. The 53-year-old American academic, who is one of the leading global experts on the China-Africa relationship, says the world's second-largest economy's straightforward approach to investment without any ideological ties has proved a breath of fresh air.

"China has reinvigorated the debate on development and brought practical real experience to the continent, and demonstrated they can transform themselves not in six generations or even one generation, but now," he says.

Alden, the author of the highly-acclaimed book "China in Africa", was speaking in his office in Houghton Street in London, where he had a reader at the department of international relations at the London School of Economics.

He says China's involvement in Africa since the middle part of the last decade has shown up the failure of the post-1980s so-called Washington Consensus that development in Africa needed to be led by the private sector.

China's aid and investment in infrastructure over the past decade on the other hand, he argues, has secured tangible results.

"I think the first and most important legacy China has had is in breaking the Western donor cartel. This monopoly of ideas that had been produced out of the World Bank or adhered to by the OECD had patently brought limited results in development terms," he says.

"You have only got to go to Angola, as I did in the mid-1990s, and contrast the situation with now. For all the problems the country still has, you can get around the city now. There is housing and the roads have been reworked so you can get goods to the market in Rwanda. The place has been rehabilitated. All these are China-led initiatives, by and large. Not exclusively but the main impulse has come from China."

Although based mainly in London, Alden spends one week in every five in Johannesburg and Pretoria where he runs a programme at the South African Institute for International Affairs. His wife is South African.

Alden was born in Teheran to a British father and American mother but was educated in the United States after the age of 11. He read history at Reed College in Portland Oregon before moving to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where he began his Africa specialisation, doing an MA on post-colonial Mozambique and a PhD on then South African president PW Botha's security state. This led to an academic career, which has taken in lecturing posts in the US, South Africa and in London.

He is now also a director of the Africa Programme at the influential LSE IDEAS centre.

Alden says he began his interest in the China-Africa relationship in the early 1990s when it wasn't fashionable.

"I started working on it when I was working on something called the East Africa project at Witz (Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg). Then the rise of Asia used to be described as the Pacific century and was really a lot about Japan and less about the other actors. The story has been somewhat different since it was difficult then to anticipate the trajectory of China."

China's relationship with Africa had been largely a political one from the 1960s but, according to Alden, the turning point was former Chinese president Jiang Zemin's visit to the continent in 1996, which put it on a more economic footing.

"I would say it was a turning point on both sides. Jiang Zemin came away quite impressed with the opportunities that presented themselves in real economic terms in such sectors as agriculture. On the African side there was a realisation that China was no longer a marginal player but an emerging power they needed to engage with," he says.

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