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African Governments Need to Negotiate Better Deals With China. Here's How They Can Do It.

Africa’s rising indebtedness to China is prompting concern across the continent that governments need to do a better job negotiating infrastructure financing deals. Too often, critics contend, the Chinese are simply out-maneuvering their African counterparts in the negotiating process.

This is the core of the accusation that China is engaging in “predatory lending” in Africa where Beijing entraps local governments with massive debts that will be difficult, if not impossible, to repay. When these governments invariably default, according to the “debt trap” theory, China will either take control of strategic African assets used as collateral or use its position for enhanced political influence.

The problem with this theory is that it too often strips Africans of their agency in the negotiating process. That either they don’t know what they are doing or they’re simply negotiating bad deals. While both of those may be true, in some instances, the reality is far more complex, according to University of Oxford scholar Folashadé Soulé.

“Some have argued in the past that many African governments fail to negotiate successfully with the Chinese because they lack a strategy. I actually see plenty stratagems and tactics on the African side. What is required is a more coordinated and coherent approach – something China has been working on from its own perspective.” —Folashadé Soulé

Folashadé is among the world’s leading experts on the negotiation practices of African governments, particularly in West Africa, and their dealings with the Chinese. Her research reveals huge differences in how African governments at all levels (national, state, local) negotiate contracts with the Chinese.

In a recently published article in The Conversation, Folashadé recommended four things that Africans can do to negotiate better infrastructure deals with the Chinese:

  1. Involve everyone: When all relevant government departments are involved in a negotiation, it does take longer. The process is more coherent, however, and the resulting project is less likely to breach national regulations.
  2. Empower the negotiators: Too often leaders, or their senior advisors, intervene in the process and undermine negotiators.
  3. Keep the public onside: Dealing with China can be very controversial in some countries, so if a deal is to succeed it will be important to make sure the public also understands the value of interacting with Chinese financiers.
  4. Increase knowledge:  African governments are still relatively new to dealing with China; they should take every opportunity to share lessons with one another.

Folashadé joins Eric & Cobus to discuss her four recommendations and whether they are actually feasible in both autocratic and democratic governments in Africa.

Show Notes:

About Folashadé Soulé:
Folashadé Soulé is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, formerly as a Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellow and currently as a Visiting Scholar at the Blavatnik School of Government. She holds a PhD (summa cum laude) in International Relations from Sciences Po Paris.
During and since defending her PhD, she has been a postdoctoral researcher at the London School of Economics (LSE), and a part-time Lecturer in International Relations and Political Science (Africa and Global Politics; the Politics of Globalization; International Political Economy). Folashade’s current research investigates the negotiation practices of francophone African governments when dealing with China (infrastructure projects). It aims to challenge the prevailing wisdom in international relations that bureaucracies and governments of ‘weak’ countries exert minimal influence when they negotiate with ‘strong’ countries such as China, and will add precious empirical and theoretical knowledge to a small but growing body of research on small developing countries in asymmetric negotiations.

She has published several articles in peer-reviewed journals such as Global Governance, Afrique contemproaine, Foro Internacional and Cahiers des Amériques Latines. As a policy-facing academic – connecting policy and research, she has been acting as an international strategy consultant for the OECD, the French Development Agency (AFD), the Presidency of Benin, and several consultancy firms (Oxford Analytica, Ernst&Young, Deloitte). She has also trained young diplomats and military civil servants in Bamako, Mali in methodology and analytical tools in international relations.

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