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20 January 2020updated 09 Apr 2020 7:08am

China is the elephant in the room of Boris Johnson’s Africa strategy

The emergence of China as a power player in the development world has yet to sink in among British policymakers.

By Richard Darlington

When Boris Johnson says he wants to make the United Kingdom Africa’s “investment partner of choice”, the elephant in the room is China. Giving African Presidents what they want, while ensuring African populations get what they need, is a tricky foreign policy tightrope to walk. There are far easier places for British businesses to make money. Yes, Africa is a land of opportunity but it is also a tricky place to do business, especially if you care about human rights, local people and social justice. 

The Entebbe Road in Uganda is legendary. Rammed with traffic and mined with pot holes, it can take anywhere from an hour or two to get between the country’s only international airport and the nation’s political and financial capital, Kampala. But China’s ‘belt and road’ initiative has delivered: a superhighway to connect the two: just the kind of infrastructure improvement that most sub-Saharan African economies cannot finance themselves. When you reach Kampala, that’s where the traffic gridlock begins. 

Across Lake Victoria, in Kenya, the drive from the port of Mombasa to the capital Nairobi is even more gruelling. Single carriage most of the way, as trucks transporting almost everything on sale in the capital overtake one another but never give way. Accidents are frequent. It’s an eight hour drive at best. Those who can afford to, take short-hall flights instead. But now there is a new railway line, not just built by Chinese engineers but also run by Chinese railway workers.

In Ethiopia’s capital, the familiar congestion of capital cities across the continent has been eased by a light rail metro system, the only one in Africa outside of South Africa. The government has insisted that tickets be priced so they are affordable for local people and as a result, it is rammed all day, everyday. But that’s allowed the government to ban mini-buses from the city centre. Not quite a vehicle low emission but it’s a start! To finance the scheme, the Ethiopian government used the profits from the state-owned telecoms network as collateral for Chinese loans. 

This is the reality of investment in Africa and it’s the ‘market’ that the UK government is increasingly trying to intervene in. Rather than ‘belt and road’ infrastructure, the UK is seeking to leverage its competitive advantage, especially the City of London and boost financing to help African entrepreneurs who are keen to make money through digital services and low-carbon, climate-resilient, green-economy enterprises. They are also prioritising women, and try to “level-up” education and training opportunities. 

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Silicon Savana, and fin-tech like mobile money, already have a proven track record, especially in East Africa. And one of the best kept secrets of the last Labour government was a grant of £1million from Dfid to SafariCom, to underwrite the loses on the boldest gamble of the century: MPesa. Ultimately, there were no losses and the grant should probably have been a loan, because it has been both one of the most profitable business ventures and, at the same time, one of the most impactful private sector initiatives for Kenyans living just above the poverty line. 

For a Prime Minster stealing Labour clothes and desperate to consolidate voters in Labour’s so called ‘red-wall’, the “leveling-up” in Northern England and the investment in crumbling infrastructure is a policy agenda which could also travel south: several thousand miles. But unlike towns like Wigan and Wokington who feel left behind by the embrace globalisation and the austerity agenda of the only government they had, Africa has options. And some of their best options in recent years, have been Chinese.

Progressives should care about the rise of China as a development actor, just as much as they care about whether China can provide a counter weight to Trump’s American in the global talks on climate change. We should care that their default position is often to ignore human rights and bring in low-skilled Chinese workers to do development to, rather than with, Africans. The UK can play a different role, but only with the consent of African governments. At the same time, the imperfections of democracy (and that’s a generous understatement) in many African countries, should make the UK government as concerned about the capacity of African civil society as the they are about skills in capital markets and tax revenue collection services. 

African people need jobs in African economies. African governments need tax revenues from businesses making money in their economies. And the UK has a role to play in speaking up for human rights and making pro-poor investments which shape the way African markets develop. That takes decades of commitment, and not just a one day summit in London.

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