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Deborah Brautigam on Sino-African Development Partnerships

+ Brandon Fuller

In Africa’s Eastern Promise, a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Deborah Brautigam writes of the two-part development strategy that China pursues with a select number of partner countries in Africa. The strategy consists of loans backed by natural resources and special economic zones—ideas that come directly from China’s development experience at home.

China Eximbank issues market-rate loans that finance infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, hydropower, schools, water systems, and hospitals in Africa. Borrowers repay the loans with natural resources—oil in countries like Angola, Nigeria, and the Republic of the Congo, cocoa beans in Ghana, and copper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More often than not, Chinese firms receive the infrastructure contracts, but the agreements typically contain provisions that specify a competitive bid process and a degree of subcontracting to local firms.

China also partnered with Nigeria, Mauritius, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Egypt to build special economic zones (SEZs) oriented toward the type of light-manufacturing that drove Chinese growth in the recent past. In most cases, the Chinese agencies with experience building China’s own SEZs advise the development of the new zones in Africa. The zones will allow African “countries to improve poor infrastructure, inadequate services, and weak institutions by focusing efforts on a limited geographical area.” With the new zones, China appears have learned some lessons from its past development failures in Africa:

For decades, Chinese teams in Africa constructed agricultural projects or built factories only to turn them over to inexperienced and sometimes uninterested host governments. Once the Chinese left, the benefits of the projects declined, prompting the host governments to ask the Chinese to return. Now, Chinese companies are taking responsibility for both designing and building the zones and then managing them as businesses.

Though the prospect of China partnering with authoritarian regimes in Africa may seem disconcerting at first, Brautigam calls on Westerners to be open-minded about China’s initiatives in Africa. Indeed, rich Western countries might do well to follow China’s lead. Where traditional aid programs have failed, forging partnerships with African leaders and establishing special zones could be a more effective way for the West to promote development and respect for human rights.

Brautigam’s latest book, The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, treats the development relationship between China and Africa in greater detail.

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