Investment May 2010

The Next Empire

All across Africa, new tracks are being laid, highways built,ports deepened, commercial contracts signed—all on an unprecedented scale, and led by China, whose appetite for commodities seems insatiable. Do China’s grand designs promise the transformation,at last, of a star-crossed continent? Or merely its exploitation? The author travels deep into the heart of Africa, searching for answers.

Davies is not alone in his enthusiasm. “No country has made as big an impact on the political, economic and social fabric of Africa as China has since the turn of the millennium,” writes Dambisa Moyo, a London-based economist, in her influential book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. Moyo, a 40-year-old Zambian who has worked as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs and as a consultant for the World Bank, believes that foreign aid is a curse that has crippled and corrupted Africa—and that China offers a way out of the mess the West has made.

“Between 1970 and 1998,” she writes, “when aid flows to Africa were at their peak, poverty in Africa rose from 11 percent to a staggering 66 percent.” Subsidized lending, she says, encourages African governments to make sloppy, wasteful decisions. It breeds corruption, by allowing politicians to siphon off poorly monitored funds. And it forestalls national development, which she says begins with the building of a taxation system and the attraction of foreign commercial capital. In Moyo’s view, even the West’s “obsession with democracy” has been harmful. In poor countries, she writes, “democratic regimes find it difficult to push through economically beneficial legislation amid rival parties and jockeying interests.” Sustainable democracy, she feels, is possible only after a strong middle class has emerged.

In its recent approach to Africa, China could not be more different from the West. It has focused on trade and commercially justified investment, rather than aid grants and heavily subsidized loans. It has declined to tell African governments how they should run their countries, or to make its investments contingent on government reform. And it has moved quickly and decisively, especially in comparison to many Western aid establishments. Moyo’s attitude toward the boom in Chinese business in Africa is amply revealed by the name of a chapter in her book: “The Chinese Are Our Friends.” Perhaps what Africa needs, she notes, is a reliable commercial partner, not a high-minded scold. And perhaps Africa should take its lessons from a country that has recently pulled itself out of poverty, not countries that have been rich for generations.

“I would say this is a transformational moment for Africa,” Moyo told me from London last spring. “I see the explosive development of infrastructure. I see people producing more food and having more jobs … And besides, I don’t see how otherwise you are going to get a civil society, except by building up a middle class.”

Even taking the recent global downturn into account, this has been a hopeful time for a historically downtrodden continent. Per capita income for sub-Saharan Africa nearly doubled between 1997 and 2008, driven up by a long boom in commodities, by a decrease in the prevalence of war, and by steady improvements in governance. And while the downturn has brought commodity prices low for the time being, there is a growing sense that the world’s poorest continent has become a likely stage for globalization’s next act. To many, China—cash-rich, resource-hungry, and unfickle in its ardor—now seems the most likely agent for this change.

But of course, Africa has had hopeful moments before, notably in the early 1960s, at the start of the independence era, when many governments opted for large, state-owned economic schemes that quickly foundered, and again in the 1970s, another era of booming commodity prices, when rampant corruption, heavy debt, and armed conflict doomed any hopes of economic takeoff.

China’s burgeoning partnership with Africa raises several momentous questions: Is a hands-off approach to governmental affairs the right one? Can Chinese money and ambition succeed where Western engagement has manifestly failed? Or will China become the latest in a series of colonial and neocolonial powers in Africa, destined like the others to leave its own legacy of bitterness and disappointment? I was heading south on the Tazara—through the past and into the future, to the sites of some of China’s most ambitious efforts on the continent—to try to get some early sense of how the whole grand project was proceeding.

The call to board the train came early, and I took my place in an orderly embarkation line in the departure hall, eventually walking down the central platform and past the luridly disheveled wreckage of a long-immobilized train. On the adjacent track, my train, the Kilimanjaro Express (which, curiously, goes nowhere near Mount Kilimanjaro), looked natty by comparison, its dark-olive paint unmarred. I clambered aboard and, after a brief confusion over seating assignments, settled with my three cabinmates into a tight little space with twin bunk beds along both walls and a table in the middle.

Isaac Mpotia, a 50-year-old Tanzanian electrical engineer who had studied in Germany, sat by the window, directly across from me. He was taking the train home to Iringa, in southern Tanzania, I later learned, after a long stint doing engine work for the Tazara in Dar. He was quiet and a little somber while the train sat in the station, but as it lurched away from the platform at 3:50 p.m., right on time, he smiled. “Today,” he said, “we are operating on German time.” With a look of mischief, he added: “From here out, we can break down at any time.”

The slums on the southwestern edge of Dar, where women pounded their evening meals in mortars and half-naked children waved, quickly fell away, giving over to thickening bush. With nightfall’s approach, we would be entering the Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest in Africa. (I had heard stories of collisions with elephants causing trains to derail.) All along the way, wreckage was strewn beside the tracks—railway cars hauled from where they’d derailed or broken down, and left to decay like great, dead beasts.

Presented by

Howard W. French is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa. He teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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