Analysis & Opinions - Business Daily

Improving China's Image in Africa

| November 29, 2007

China’s ability to respond rapidly to requests for investment in new areas such as infrastructure has emboldened many African leaders who are under pressure to meet their electoral promises.

But such rapid responses have seen China establish its presence in many African countries and made it vulnerable to unfavourable diplomatic exposure. In Darfur, for example, rebels are demanding that China be excluded from peacekeeping efforts. They argue that China’s role is compromised by the fact that its oil revenues are supporting the Sudanese government.

China needs to rethink its image in Africa so that it can be an effective player in a broader international alliance for Africa’s development. New diplomatic efforts that involve partnerships with other nations around the world would make China’s interest in Africa better. In other words, Africa’s development interests should be seen as the basis for defining China’s diplomatic policy on Africa.

Africa’s capacity to develop and become a major player in the global economy will depend largely on the extent to which it is able to train a large section of its population in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

China could make significant contributions to Africa if it joined other nations around the world to help Africa build up its scientific and technical competence. Much of this is going to involve creating a new generation of technical and entrepreneurial universities.

There is considerable disquiet over China’s economic relations with countries that have poor governance records. Most of the governance challenges are a result of weak democratic institutions as well as access to opportunities for professional training.

China could contribute to improvements in the situation by supporting the establishment of training programmes in development management in particular and governance in general.

In addition, China could work with African countries in expanding and in responding to their needs to move into emerging technological fields such as information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Many of these technologies can be used to promote alternative development approaches that reduce ecological damage.
For example, China’s experience in biotechnology could be used to promote sustainable agriculture in Africa as recommended in Freedom to Innovate: Biotechnology in Africa’s Development, the report of the High Level African Panel on Biotechnology prepared for the African Union.

Other fields could include expanding critical infrastructure such a wireless broadband which can help to extend communications capabilities on the continent. Finally, emerging fields such as nanotechnology could be used to develop ecologically-sound products that can enable Africa to pursue sustainable development paths.

Chinese enterprises will continue to be a visible part of the African landscape. It will be critically important for them to cultivate a good image of corporate citizenship and to work closely with local communities. If the enterprises do not adopt an outlook of good citizenship, they attract local resentment.

The work to build a positive image must start now and China’s presence in Africa will need to go beyond the current connections with governments and more engagement with the public, including support to non-governmental development efforts.

Many of the transactions between China and Africa are kept confidential and little is known about their terms. Promoting greater transparency and mutual learning from those arrangements will help to improve the image of Chinese businesses in Africa.

Prof Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Improving China's Image in Africa.” Business Daily, November 29, 2007.

The Author

Calestous Juma