Africa’s potential economic development is a staple of commentary in publications on international affairs. What’s important about this fact is that it’s been this way for years, nay decades. It seems that Africa — by which is meant sub-Saharan Africa — is always filled with potential. Unfortunately there is very little analysis showing that potential realized.
There seems to be a very effective effort to place the ultimate blame for Africa’s inability to progress in economic and political terms on what William Wallis, the experienced Financial Times editor on African affairs, refers to as “the relative failure of Europe’s mission during colonial times, and more recently through development aid, to introduce rules-based systems.”
In stating this, Wallis has sought to explain why some observers believe that China and industrial powers of the developing world, such as Brazil and India, are more capable of dealing with Africa’s needs and desires. One only can surmise that the rough and tumble of African business life, and ultimately its entire economic status, is more suitable to the less complicated and purportedly less sophisticated commercial controls and methodology of these developing industrial countries.
In a certain sense this might be a correct assumption. The Americans, for example, have a host of federal laws (including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) that prevent U.S. firms from making the kind of corporate/government commitment that allows host country officials and local politicians to participate in or benefit from the projects under consideration. E.U. nations are now similarly constrained, though former colonial powers among them most often have had local companies operating under less restrictive charters and laws for many decades.
These legal and ethical inhibitions on foreign operations not only do not exist with such countries as China, but their percentage of ownership, financial advantage, or other forms of participation with local political elements — individual or group — has been considered simply a “cost of investment.”
Perhaps one of the most unexpected of recent developments — or non-developments — in respect to Africa has come about with Barack Obama’s assumption of the U.S. presidency. African UN delegates were encouraged to believe that with Obama as president he would take the steps necessary to enhance U.S. investment in Africa in general and Kenya/ East Africa specifically. It was not an unexpected commitment. After all, Obama’s father was a member of the Luo tribe, and in Africa one honors his family upon gaining high office through sharing the advantage obtained by the improved status.
The downplaying of this new direct American/African relationship may not have been surprising to the Western nations or Obama’s Chicago constituency, but it was certainly a surprise to China, the Middle East and South Asia investment groups expecting a strong African play by the Americans after years of staying on the economic sidelines in everything except extractive industries. China has been more than willing to take up the slack. But then it had rushed in as early as the 1960s on projects that Western firms and governments had turned down.
Beijing also has its troubles in Africa now. There are complaints that the Chinese do little to aid the persistent unemployment that marks the entire region. Apparently the Chinese have their own problems with the productivity of African workers. The Chinese solve that shortcoming by bringing their own workers with them, which is not at all appreciated. Another objection voiced by African politicians is that the Chinese never seem to let up on their political maneuvering. There’s always just one more thing that they are interested in and on which they would like to negotiate.
The last complaint is not hard to fathom. The Chinese are said to act very superior. In both East and West Africa, complaints have grown in the press in recent years against Chinese supervisory personnel in their dealings with “locals.” In a certain manner Chinese behavior has assumed a colonialist attitude and this naturally harshens the work environment.
Among investment development executives, there inadequate recognition of the gulf in technical sophistication between the urban and rural African. At the same time the tribal allegiances of both populations bridge their communities. These factors, political and social, tend to inhibit economic development as much as the more often derisively characterized lack of ambition for the vaunted benefits of an “advanced” society.
Africa may not be progressing at the pace it should in the minds of those in the world of economic development. But not unsurprisingly most of this objection comes from those who have little perception of what Africa believes is actually progress and how speedily it should be sought. The bottom line is that the external powers want to make a substantial profit and in Africa the definition of profit is not the same thing. For the typical African profit means a marginal accrual of wealth, a slight improvement in living standards, and above all an improvement in self-image.
Industry, long stretches of macadam roads, and monumental concrete buildings may make the Chinese, Brazilians, and all the other developing areas happy, but not Africa. In the end Africa will defeat all efforts to enrich and embellish it. It has its own particular wealth. As for beauty — nothing can be built that equals Africa’s natural attributes.
Progress is measured differently in the sub-Sahara. Its politicians and generals may dream of the Côte d’Azur, but the average African seeks only an undemanding job, peace, health, and a bottle of moderately warm beer every now and then. And when it comes to the final analysis, who is going to gainsay that judgment?