One of my roles working for DFID is to explore ways in which the UK and China can work together to promote development in Africa. We discuss these issues in big international meetings. We have started to do this in African capitals. We have even started some China-UK-Africa projects on rural roads in DRC, UN police peacekeeping, and some academic exchanges.
One of the really interesting things about this work is talking to Africans about what they want from China. And in Beijing, there are many more Africans to have this conversation with, than there have been in the past.
A few weeks ago we hosted three leading agriculture experts from Africa and visited some of the agricultural areas around Beijing. They and I were seriously impressed. One remarked to me that “China’s own and very recent experience of poverty reduction is a powerful magnate to African leaders, researchers and policy makers – we are all keen to learn from China”. I was impressed, because I worked on a farm before going to university and I know any sort of mechanisation is better than picking potatoes by hand!
One of the things that shocks many, as they walk around Beijing, visit industrial zones, take in modern agriculture facilities and speed along China’s impressive roads and railways is to learn that China was once much poorer than their own countries.
In the 1970s the average person in China was much poorer than their equivalent in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, and in Sudan. That of course is no longer the case. And it is because these changes are recent, because many of the senior Chinese people they meet grew up at a time when China was poor, that there is a connection between Africans and Chinese which creates a powerful bond of understanding. There is urgency for action, a desire to do practical things.
The Chinese can almost always see beyond the poverty they see in Africa and are hugely positive about opportunities. And that is something that brings real energy to the growing relationship. It also works the other way around. There are increasing numbers of African business people in Beijing. Whenever I bump into any I always try and have a chat with them about their experiences in China. One said to me recently “Africans love low-cost Chinese consumer goods, even if they break before Western ones, you can afford to buy another one!”
Of course much of the China-Africa relationship is about business opportunities and projects that can be funded by China. Both China and Africa are clear that investment and trade are hugely important to successful development.
So why is this of interest to the UK? Well, Africa is a major priority to the UK. China knows this. China also knows that Africa is different to China. It also knows that what has worked in China might not work across a continent with a huge variety of countries, cultures and contexts. In the last 12 months China has become much more open to talking to countries like the UK about development in Africa. This does not mean for a moment that China will become like the UK, but it means we are starting, with the full involvement of our African partners, to have a three-way discussion about development in Africa. If we can all learn from each other, I’m sure the outcomes of all of our endeavours will be better than if we were not talking.