PERSPECTIVE: Exclusive to the Maravi Post

THE proverbial all that glitters is not gold has turned out to be true in several African countries that have had economic intercourse with China and the Chinese traders. In Malawi not too long ago, some Chinese traders were caught ‘in flagrante delicto’ siphoning Forex. A hospital in Luanda – Angola, was opened with great fanfare but cracks appeared in the walls within a few months and it soon closed. The Chinese-built road from Zambia’s capital Lusaka to Chirundu, 130km (81 miles) to the south-east, was quickly swept away by rains. At Chinese-run mines in Zambia’s Copper Belt, workers must work for two years before they get safety helmets.

While on the other hand, the Chinese traders have brought some benefits; for example the arrival of Chinese traders in Soweto market in Lusaka halved the cost of chicken and cabbage prices dropped by 65%.

“Tens of thousands of entrepreneurs from one of the most successful modern economies have fanned out across the continent. Sanou Mbaye, a former senior official at the African Development Bank, says more Chinese have come to Africa in the past ten years than Europeans in the past 400. First came Chinese from state-owned companies, but more and more arrive solo or stay behind after finishing contract work.”

Shrewd African governments, like Tanzania’s, have set parameters on where Chinese businessmen can operate and in what sort of businesses they can engage in. While this may be deemed as stifling fair trade and competition, it is the only way to protect local traders whose levels of sophistication cannot match the Chinese.

Going back to the questions that prompted this rather long discussion, what will Malawi, in turn, have to part with? For one, the Chinese funded projects are designed in a top-bottom manner. They are not driven by the needs of the ordinary villagers. The best illustration is the loss of the fertilizer manufacturing factory. To the second question: why is China ‘playing Santa Claus’ to countries like Malawi which have on the surface little, if anything, to offer in return? There are a lot of reasons. One: to secure natural resources that the African Continent is blessed with. Two: to further isolate Taiwan. Three: to find employment for its huge population and a gullible market for its goods most of which are cheap in the negative sense of the word. And four: to demonstrate to the world that it is indeed a force to reckon with in economic terms.

Coming to the third and most critical question: is Chinese aid conducive to Malawi’s development – if we are to define development as tangible socio-economic progress in the lives of the ordinary man and woman in the village? The correct answer is no given that poor Malawians needed development yesterday and given that the country’s young population in Ntandire, Chimoka, Makatani need jobs today. Again, given that no amount of grants can make a difference if used in an environment where there is little or no transparency, where governance is poor and where high level corruption reigns supreme, the answer again is no.

But in the long run, if and only if, the structures being erected are put to good use, corruption and short term political interests are put aside, Chinese aid could make a positive impact. If and only if Chinese aid is applied equitably all over Malawi in response to demand and based on what Malawians need, there will be a reason to smile.

To conclude this discussion, while Chinese aid – be it in the form of grants or loans – is easier to come by than traditional Western aid, African countries, especially Malawi which is still enjoying its honeymoon with China needs to tread carefully.

Firstly, the loans secured should be put to good use and the projects financed should be capable of generating enough return on investment and be capable of repaying the loan. As has been experienced in Kenya, South Africa, Zambia as reported by the Economist, there is no such a thing as a free meal. Malawi should draw and apply lessons from South Africa which has developed a very sophisticated China policy designed to gain concessions from the Chinese and gain influence as the interlocutor between China and other African nations. Other African nations, with longer experience in dealing with China, also have comprehensive China strategies. These include Egypt, Algeria and Sudan and they have so far been successful in their relations with the Chinese. Malawi has no shortage of peers to learn from.

Secondly, Malawi should not make the mistake of losing western aid. The Chinese do not provide unrestricted aid through budgetary support or otherwise. As long as direct budgetary support remains the most preferred mode of aid for Malawi, Chinese aid should only be used as supplementary funding.

Finally, the Malawi leadership would do well to temporarily set aside its partisan political interests, traditional arrogance and not be too excited with its new found friend in the People’s Republic of China when designing a Malawi China Engagement Strategy or Malawi will have merely replaced her former colonial master, Britain, with yet another imperial power. His Excellency Mr. Fergus Cochrane-Dyet’s ancestors understood better when they said better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

  • Wise One From The East writes from the RSA
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