For decades, all eyes in Africa were on Europe when it came to investments and development projects. Within a few years, however, the People’s Republic of China emerged as a strong competitor to the Europeans. Within a very short time, the Middle Kingdom overtook the World Bank, which was financed by the industrialized countries, in infrastructure investments such as roads, dam projects, raw material mines, the financial sector, and, for a long time, the production of goods.
Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries just a few years ago, has been able to position itself as a producer of leather goods and textiles, while also launching Ethiopian Airways, the continent’s largest airline. China’s stock of direct investment worldwide is growing exponentially, and Africa is getting an ever-larger share of it. China’s share of investment in Africa has also grown exponentially since 2003 with 0.14 percent up to 4.54 percent in 2014. Although it is still far behind the former European colonial powers France and Great Britain and also behind the USA, it was able to almost triple its investments between 2011 and 2016 and stalk the previous top dogs.
The narrative has long been established in the Western world that China is acting as a new colonial power on the continent, hardly caring about the fate or development of Africans, ignoring ecological and social problems, or even exacerbating existing ones. African countries would be driven by the Chinese dragon into the debt trap and subsequently into impoverishment. Above all, Beijing would be interested only in satisfying its own industry’s hunger for raw materials and leaving Africa as an empty desert.
But in view of the sober figures on the sectors in which the largest investors in Africa invest their funds, this image of Chinese involvement in Africa is hardly tenable – and even less so the self-image that Europeans and Americans paint of themselves. On the contrary, hardly any foreign economic power allocates a larger part of its capital to the manufacture and production of goods in Africa, the construction of infrastructure, housing complexes, railways, and power plants, which ultimately directly improve the quality of life of the local population. With the exception of the United Kingdom, no country allocates more of its investment to the financial sector either. One obstacle to African development that should not be underestimated is its dysfunctional credit and insurance sector. The share allocated to the exploitation of the continent’s local raw materials is also many times smaller than that of any other foreign power on the continent.
Africans no longer accept Europe’s paternalism
So, while China’s investments are in no way suspiciously distributed compared to Europe’s, Europe’s self-image of the savior with the mission to redeem Africa from its misery is causing more and more resentment. Africans themselves have long since found New Media for a satirical reappraisal, for example when collecting for Norwegians suffering from frostbite in order to provide them with heaters, or naive Western development workers who want to teach Africans about fitness and not to pay too much attention to material things.
“We are being berated and lectured about not approaching China,” said Caxton Fatanmi, a Nigerian CEO and oil trader. “Africa’s elites, themselves educated in Western universities, who barely pay taxes in their own home countries to be able to finance such infrastructure projects, parroted criticism from Washington or Paris.” They would be the biggest critics of Chinese involvement in Africa. When asked, however, they would mostly have no answer as to how to deck the huge investment needs for infrastructure for the African population.
In fact, this is also seen on a broader level. In a survey conducted by Germany’s liberal Friedrich Naumann Foundation, more than a thousand journalists, academic staff, think tanks, NGOs, and business stakeholders in 26 African countries see Europe’s commitment in much the same way. Nor do they like to demonize China as the colonial power they are expected to be in the West. China has long been seen as a useful competitor when it comes to carrying out large construction projects cost-effectively. From the Africans’ point of view, the Middle Kingdom is quickly catching up with the Europeans.
In the view of 75 percent of the Africans surveyed, China’s strength lies above all in its rapid decision-making processes, compared with 56 for the Europeans. 81 percent praise the time-efficient completion of projects, compared with 69 for the Europeans. In addition, they appreciate China’s policy of strict non-interference in internal affairs; just 36 percent think Europeans treat African countries as equal partners compared to 50 percent who see this in China.
But China is also catching up where Africans still see advantages with the Europeans. At 53, China is only a few percentage points behind Europe’s 62 percent when it comes to economic development cooperation. At 66 percent, only marginally more Africans believe they are in a Chinese debt trap than a European one at 59 percent. Although 71 percent of African survey participants see Europe as more generous when it comes to debt restructuring, China follows on its heels with just 62 percent – as an emerging market that has only just escaped abject poverty itself. With twelve percentage points, Europe is clearly ahead when it comes to strategic cooperation, but China’s 65 percentage points do not speak for the whip-wielding colonial master that is often painted on the wall.
In a list of 17 categories, China ultimately came out on top in just four of them, one of which – however – is corruption, as perceived by Europeans. However, these four are the ones that matter most in complex projects: fast planning and execution and staying out of internal affairs and decision-making processes. Europe simply cannot keep up with the speed at which Africa wants to develop under the conditions they dictate, says Caxton Fatanmi.
Kenyan co-author James Shikwati, puts it this way in Deutsche Welle: “Chinese ask: Which road should be built from where to where? Europeans first check how many insects walk over it.” Europe dictates to Africans what they need and sets their value system. In the meantime, the Chinese are building hardware, and roads are values, too.”
Western values stand in the way of Africa’s development
Caxton also echoes this view. Anyone who has had any experience with project planning would know that projects built to European or North American standards would hang around forever in the planning stage. They would also come with higher costs and ultimately the risk of not being built at all. Thus, on February 2, 2011, the World Bank, which is mainly backed by Western capital, announced that it was withdrawing from financing the Nairobi Toll Road Projects (NTR), whose financing had actually already been promised in 2007. The reason given by the World Bank for the withdrawal was that the Austrian contractor Strabag SE had not committed itself to the institution’s integrity regulations and training programs. A road construction project financed by it would have to comply with the environmental and social standards of the World Bank Group and involve all parties along the 160-kilometer route in consultations. Exactly which regulations the Austrian road construction company had violated was neither explained by the World Bank nor did Strabag itself provide any information.
In contrast, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) stamped out a 27-kilometer section of road that connects Nairobi Airport as an express highway to the capital’s central Westlands district. This will also relieve congestion on the city’s regularly overloaded transport system. The managing director of the Austrian consulting company Ecotec, Hans Stoisser, describes the dilemma of local African governments: “Under the impression of daily traffic infarctions, one finds oneself under constant pressure from the urban population. Which project partner is more likely to solve the pressing infrastructure problems of African cities? Europe or China?”