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U.S. vs. Chinese Approaches to Aid in Africa

The idea for this new podcast series was born from the constant frustration of talking with Western “development experts,” diplomats and aid workers in Africa. In every instance, Westerners were either strikingly ignorant of Chinese engagement there or summarily dismissed the Chinese presence in Africa as “counter productive” because China is not a democratic country. There was little nuance to their opinions about the Chinese in Africa and it reflected a broader ignorance within the aid community as a whole about non-Western methods of development.

The exploration of China’s involvement in Africa requires a much more thorough and inquisitive analysis than what is currently available from either the traditional media or from within the development community itself. Each week, this podcast will reach out to bloggers, aid workers, scholars and business leaders in the hope of filling this void.

[The Chinese] are used to working hands-on in a way that many people in the same industries in the United States are no longer used to doing and to be blunt, they just kick our ass. You walk down the street of Kinshasa, you see Chinese people working side by side with Africans in a way that you just don’t see Europeans and Americans do. – Ben Olander,

In this first episode of the “China in Africa Podcast” I stayed close to home and sat down for a discussion with my own brother, Ben Olander. Ben spent the past seven years working in Central and West Africa for a variety of international NGOs and later started up his own media company in Kinshasa, “smallpower.” During his time in both Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ben witnessed firsthand the dramatic rise of the Chinese presence amid an increasingly bureaucratic, ineffective and, sometimes even corrupt, U.S. funded development effort. Ben shares his perspective on both the Chinese and American approaches to aid in this edition of the “China in Africa Podcast.”

The Chinese Rise as the U.S. Flounders in Africa

During the brief time that I lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, two things shocked me more than anything else. First, the sheer scale of the Chinese presence was breathtaking. Over the four years that I had been traveling back and forth to the DRC, the speed with which the Chinese ramped up their operations in the DRC was impressive by any measure. Most visibly, Chinese construction teams are ripping up the city from one side to the other to build desperately needed roads. Off the streets and in the capital’s vast neighborhoods, the Chinese are also having an equally transformative effect, albeit far less visible. Tens of thousands of Chinese laborers have immigrated to cities like Kinshasa where they are now setting up bakeries, convenience stores and other businesses. Unlike their Western counterparts, these Chinese immigrants live, work and eat among the Kinois.  While Chinese of varying socio-economic levels seemed to easily adapt to the DRC’s sometimes harsh living environment, the Americans there universally made no effort whatsoever.  Instead, they live an extravagant lifestyle that no doubt exceeds their standard of living in the United States.   U.S. aid and development officials live in gated compounds, with armed security guards and fully insulated from the population at every move.  They never walked anywhere, opting instead for expensive SUVs (typically worth in excess of $90,000) and only interacted with locals who worked in their offices.  The contrast between the Chinese and American worldviews in Kinshasa could not have been more stark.  From what I understand through research and contacts, the situation is the same across Africa. To find out more about the different mindsets of the U.S. and Chinese operating in Africa, I asked Ben to share some of his recent experiences and observations:

The Importance of National Interest

It is important to consider that foreign aid always fits within a larger context of a country’s national interests.  For China, that national interest is driven by a number of factors ranging from its growing need for natural resources to opening new markets for Chinese exports.  In many ways, China’s current national interest priorities, particularly in Africa, closely resemble a traditional mercantilist policy. In the case of the United States, that national interest has evolved considerably over the past five decades.  Today, a quarter of the USAID budget is allocated to military related assistance, clearly highlighting Washington’s priorities in the international development space.  Moreover, Ben points out even for non-military related activities, USAID’s agenda is determined not by the needs of the people it is designed to serve, rather the political currents in Washington: “Most of the money is bilateral and still ties in to national interest and domestic interests. So, if you take the United States funding for example, most of the direction that money is spent and the concerns that people have are actually domestic American debates being played out overseas rather than a true examination of what each circumstance in each country needs.” While public opinion is becoming increasingly important in China, it does not have any perceptible influence on the country’s foreign aid or overseas development strategies as is so common in the West, according to Ben: “China not being a democracy, they do not have to play to the court of public opinion in the same way with their money being spent or their energies being directed towards trade and development in Africa and in the United States it’s a political football.”

The Skills Gap

Another key area of difference between the U.S. and China’s approach to development, aid and investment in Africa, according to Ben, centers on the widening skills gap between the Americans and the Chinese.  Half a century ago, American engineers of all flavors could be found in Africa and elsewhere designing similar infrastructure projects as what the Chinese are doing today.   The United States no longer generates enough engineering talents for its domestic market much less to deploy to developing countries.  Instead, the United States exports legions of consultants and so-called “development experts” who seemingly do little more than write reports, attend meetings and work from the air conditioned comfort of their secure office compounds.  The Chinese, in contrast, have a seemingly endless supply of highly trained engineers who are now deployed across Africa to build communication, road and electrical networks: “Our skill sets no longer line up with the needs of the people that we are working with. The real reason why the Chinese have been effective is that the Chinese are sending people that will get their hands dirty, not just consultants to sit in chauffeured driven SUVs, air conditioning blasting, go from one office to another office, never actually working with the people they are supposed to be reaching.”

We are so obsessed with consultants and spreadsheets that we actually forget how to do the work. – Ben Olander,

In light of the wide skills gap between American and Chinese expatriates in places like the DRC and other African countries, it offers a bit of context for why it is so easy for Western aid and relief staff to dismiss China’s investment and development initiatives.  There is a notion that is pervasive in the development community that whatever “the Chinese do doesn’t have value because they are not a democratic society. It’s this unspoken thing. There’s a little asterisk next to everything China has accomplished in Africa because they are not a democratic country.”

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