China big­gest ben­e­fi­ciary of its African largess

Im­proved in­fra­struc­ture may be more bur­den than help

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - Re­viewed by Roger L. Si­mon

WKAMPALA, UGANDA hen the new Chi­ne­se­funded African Union head­quar­ters was un­veiled last month in Ad­dis Ababa, Equa­to­rial Guinea’s pres­i­dent, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mba­sogo, hailed the $200 mil­lion spec­ta­cle of mar­ble and glass as “a re­flec­tion of the new Africa.” Ethiopian Prime Min­is­ter Me­les Ze­nawi called it a sym­bol “of the African re­nais­sance.”

In­deed, China’s in­fras­truc­tural push here — tak­ing the form of smooth high­ways, gleam­ing tow­ers and generic mul­ti­pur­pose sta­di­ums — can make for an up­lift­ing con­trast on a con­ti­nent where a lack of in­fra­struc­ture is es­ti­mated to shave off 3 per­cent­age points of growth a year.

But it’s a myth that Chi­nese in­fra­struc­ture is open­ing up Africa to its eco­nomic po­ten­tial. It may, in fact, hin­der that po­ten­tial.

As with the African Union head­quar­ters, many Chi­nese projects use Chi­nese la­bor and ma­te­ri­als, min­i­miz­ing skills trans­fer and stunt­ing lo­cal pro­duc­tion.

The sheer ex­tent of Africa’s in­fra­struc­ture needs poses an­other prob­lem. The World Bank es­ti­mates that Africa will have to spend $93 bil­lion a year to close its in­fra­struc­ture deficit. It’s cur­rently spend­ing about half that, of which Chi­nese projects make up 20 per­cent. As a con­struc­tion man­ager work­ing in the Su­dan and Ethiopia told me, “You fin­ish one project, and by the time the next one is done, the first one needs re­pairs.” This is lim­it­ing syn­er­gies and rais­ing the host coun­try’s cost bur­den.

The scope of China’s projects do lit­tle to over­come this chal­lenge. Most are on a bi­lat­eral ba­sis, not re­gional, and fur­ther­more are not ac­com­pa­nied by a re­al­is­tic, long-term vi­sion or in­vest­ment plan. Here in Uganda, China is build­ing a four-lane toll road from the cap­i­tal to the air­port and a hospi­tal. Mostly, though, it’s un­der­tak­ing pres­tige projects meant to gain in­flu­ence with decision-mak­ers, in­clud­ing the For­eign Af­fairs Min­istry, tow­ers for the pres­i­dent and prime min­is­ter, and a foot­ball sta­dium.

There’s also a strong like­li­hood that Chi­nese in­ter­est in Africa’s in­fra­struc­ture will wane in time. This is be­cause China is not in Africa out of mag­na­nim­ity, but rather to ex­tract re­sources and boost its soft-power reach. Once those are se­cured, there will be less rea­son to in­vest in in­fra­struc­ture. Also, re­turns on in­fras­truc­tural projects tend to be very long-term, and the eco­nomic and le­gal risks are high in many African coun­tries. A num­ber of Chi­nese-spon­sored projects — in­clud­ing an oil re­fin­ery in An­gola, a high­way in Nige­ria and a fiber-op­tic project in Uganda — have stalled be­cause of fund­ing or le­gal wran­gles with the host part­ner.

Once the projects are handed over, the host part­ner of­ten lacks the cul­ture of main­te­nance and funds to sus­tain them. One of China’s big­gest in­fras­truc­tural projects on the con­ti­nent, the $500 mil­lion Tan-zam Rail­way con­nect­ing Tan­za­nia and Zam­bia, is in­struc­tive. Com­pleted in 1975, it re­port­edly was by 2008 “on the verge of col­lapse due to fi­nan­cial cri­sis.”

An­other prob­lem is that Chi­nese projects too of­ten respond to symp­toms, not causes. Take the 100-bed hospi­tal the Chi­nese handed over to Uganda last month, meant to ease con­ges­tion at the coun­try’s main hospi­tal, Mu­lago. Once a re­gional star, Mu­lago now fre­quently runs out of medicine and electricity. Pa­tients lie on hall­way floors. At the heart of this life-threat­en­ing dys­func­tion is cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment, some­thing more fi­nanc­ing won’t fix. “Do you build a new school if the one you have is not per­form­ing well?” asks Jared Osoro, an econ­o­mist at the East African De­vel­op­ment Bank in Kam­pala. Mr. Osoro says Chi­nese plans don’t look deeply enough at what ails Africa.

Rwan­dan Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame is of a sim­i­lar view. Re­flect­ing on the new African Union head­quar­ters, he said, “[The build­ing] is only a symp­tom of a much big­ger prob­lem — the prob­lem be­ing that Africa, in my view, should not be where it is to­day. We need to find a way out of this Africa, we need to work hard, be smart in many ways and do things in such a way that will get us out of this sit­u­a­tion.” In other words, China’s in­fras­truc­tural projects, tan­gi­ble and con­spic­u­ous, of­ten ob­scure the con­ti­nent’s more press­ing needs, from good gov­er­nance to ac­cess to health im­prove­ments and rel­e­vant ed­u­ca­tion.

Isaac Shinyekwa of the Eco­nomic Pol­icy Re­search Cen­ter at Mak­erere Univer­sity in Kam­pala sees di­rect for­eign in­vest­ment that cul­ti­vates lo­cal ex­per­tise and pro­duc­tion as a greater force of de­vel­op­ment than Chi­nese in­fra­struc­ture: “If we can’t add value to our prod­ucts and ex­port them, how will the in­fra­struc­ture ben­e­fit us?” The cen­ter es­ti­mates that of 4,000 Ugan­dan prod­ucts given pref­er­en­tial treat­ment by China, just 5 per­cent of­fered a real com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage, and most of those were in raw ma­te­ri­als. The trade gap stands at $200 mil­lion.

None of this is to sug­gest China’s in­fras­truc­tural work on the con­ti­nent is for naught or that only China will reap ben­e­fits. China’s $3.3 bil­lion in­vest­ment in 10 hy­dropower projects across Africa could help boost the con­ti­nent’s hy­dropower po­ten­tial from its cur­rent us­age of 7 per­cent to 30 per­cent. High­ways like the 16lane one be­ing built be­tween Nairobi and the satel­lite town of Thika should boost ef­fi­cien­cies and pro­duc­tiv­ity. The planned light rail in Ad­dis Ababa should ease con­ges­tion. The Benguela Rail­way re­fi­nanced with Chi­nese money is im­prov­ing com­merce in An­gola.

But China won’t usher in the “re­nais­sance” Africans are dream­ing of — or leave the legacy China is yearn­ing for — un­less it looks be­yond con­crete and steel to ad­dress Africa’s deeper needs.

Iam a fan of new-me­dia maven Ja­son Mat­tera’s guer­rilla videos and ra­dio ap­pear­ances, so I was dis­ap­pointed to find his lat­est book, “Hol­ly­wood Hyp­ocrites: The Dev­as­tat­ing Truth About Obama’s Big­gest Back­ers” — about, well, Hol­ly­wood hyp­ocrites such as Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, etc. — not of the same level of in­ter­est.

To be fair, Mr. Mat­tera does un­earth some new de­tails in the long list of dis­hon­esties, great and small, pro­mul­gated by Mr. Stone, Mr. Moore, Sting, Bono, Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton, Spike Lee and other mon­u­men­tal scam artists of the quon­dam-lib­eral per­sua­sion. And per­haps I’m not the book’s prime au­di­ence any­way, hav­ing spent the bet­ter part of 40 years liv­ing and work­ing with sev­eral of Mr. Mat­tera’s tar­gets, in some cases quite di­rectly.

And, yes, he and oth­ers are right in all they say about these poseurs. In­deed, close up, it’s even worse. Not only are these sup­pos­edly great artistes and peo­ple’s tri­bunes gi­ant tax cheats and megapol­luters (as Mr. Mat­tera in­di­cates) but the way they deal with their em­ploy­ees, es­pe­cially those lower on the peck­ing or­der, is noth­ing less than rep­re­hen­si­ble. In my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, the fur­ther left a Hol­ly­wood per­son­al­ity pro­claims him­self to be, the more de­spi­ca­bly he treats “the help.” You could al­most graph it.

Still, we’ve heard this song be­fore. That the likes of Mr. Moore and Mr. Stone are hyp­ocrites who en­rich them­selves while mouthing left-wing pieties and cozy­ing up to dic­ta­tors, or that Ms. Huff­in­g­ton made mil­lions off the free writ­ing of a thou­sand blog­gers is not ex­actly break­ing news. It al­ready is the stuff of a gazil­lion blog posts, umpteen hours of talk ra­dio, Fox News and a fair num­ber of books that go back years now, and even some doc­u­men­tary movies.

To take us down this road again, Mr. Mat­tera owes us a bit more than he has given, es­pe­cially if his writ­ing is to be memo­ri­al­ized be­tween hard cov­ers. Specif­i­cally, he owes us some in-depth anal­y­sis of how and why this be­hav­ior hap­pens, and per­haps some­thing about how this hypocrisy should be dealt with or changed, some­thing be­yond telling the ob­jects of his en­mity to “shove it up their lib­eral pieholes,” a not-ter­ri­bly-funny lo­cu­tion the au­thor em­ploys a tad too of­ten.

Af­ter all, the “limou­sine lib­eral” or “par­lor pink” is far from a new phe­nom­e­non in our cul­ture. Tom Wolfe wrote about the Black Pan­thers and “rad­i­cal chic” at a Leonard Bern­stein party in 1970. Long be­fore that, in the mid-1930s, for­eign cor­re­spon­dent Eu­gene Lyons, just re­turned from viewing the mass star­va­tion in Stalin’s Soviet Union, de­scribed the Man­hat­tan smart set who didn’t want to hear the truth as “pent­house Bol­she­viks.”

Mr. Stone, Mr. Moore, et al. are in­deed pent­house Bol­she­viks, part of an old phe­nom­e­non. Mr. Mat­tera thinks they and their co­horts had a great deal to do with the elec­tion of Barack Obama, that the cul­ture wars are, if any­thing, more im­por­tant than the po­lit­i­cal wars.

Quite pos­si­bly so, and the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Mr. Mat­tera’s book is that it may pro­vide some talk­ing points for right-wing cul­ture war­riors in the bat­tle of 2012. I just wish it were done bet­ter, with less in­vec­tive and more depth. “Hol­ly­wood Hyp­ocrites” doesn’t just preach to the choir. It preaches to the ul­tra­choir.


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