Analysis & Opinions - Business Daily

Lessons Africa Must Learn from Chinese Expansion

| July 13, 2007

Africa’s growing relations with China are often explained by the country’s demand for its natural resources. While this is true, a large part of the shift is because China serves as an economic role model for the continent.

China is a startling example of how a region can rise from poverty within a generation and become a dominant player on the global scene. The west, on the other hand, continues to lecture Africa on economic growth but much of it not backed by contemporary examples.

China’s rapid economic growth gives African countries hope that they too can grow rapidly.

There are a few key lessons that stand out. First, China’s large market has been a major stimulus for innovation and incentive for foreign investment. African countries are currently exploring ways to expand their markets.

Secondly, China’s economic transformation has benefited from heavy investment in infrastructure. This is possibly the weakest link in Africa’s economic strategies, limiting the continent’s capacity to produce and move goods, services and ideas.

Thirdly, China has in recent decades invested heavily in science, technology and engineering as foundations for economic transformation. Africa leaders, operating mostly under the auspices of the African Union, are starting to focus on technical training as a key policy measure. In fact, China is helping some of them in these efforts.

There are over 2,000 African students in China today, mostly in the engineering sciences. The country projects to double the number by 2009, making China Africa’s leading destination for science and engineering education.

Fourthly, China’s economic strategy has focused on complementing the expansion of local markets with export growth. This is an area where Africa remains weakest but continues to lobby for market access in internal forums.

Its ability to expand exports will depend not only on being granted market access, but on the capacity to harness technology as a tool for international competitiveness.

Finally, African countries are also inspired by the fact China’s development model differs from the approaches western advisors have previously offered them.
Two examples stand out.

In China, economic transformation appears to have moved ahead of political reform. Greater freedom in many African countries has hardly generated the promised economic benefits.

Secondly, China has been able to maintain strong growth through public enterprises weakening the case for rampant privatisation as stimulus for growth.

These examples signal to Africa diversity in development approaches and the importance of having political space for experimentation. In fact, the existence of several regional economic groupings could offer Africa the opportunity to experiment with different approaches for collective learning.

There are also negative lessons that Africa would prefer not to emulate. China’s rapid economic expansion is associated with immeasurable ecological costs. Africa would be better served to adopt ecologically-sound technologies for is economic transformation.

This may also be an area of common interest between Africa, China and the rest of the industrialised world.

There is no doubt that natural resources are a major factor for relations between China and Africa. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of China as role model for African countries aspiring to work their way out of poverty. In other words, China is providing leadership by example.

Pliny the Elder said that “there is always something new out of Africa.” We are possibly entering a new age where we can reverse the adage: there is always something new into Africa. This time it may be economic lessons from China.


Prof. Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs the Science, Technology and Globalisation

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Lessons Africa Must Learn from Chinese Expansion.” Business Daily, July 13, 2007.

The Author

Calestous Juma