February 9, 2010

Author says China's work in Africa misunderstood

In the West, China’s industrial expansion into Africa is often portrayed as dangerous, but Deborah Brautigam said China’s influence could be a beneficial alternative to conventional aid in a talk Thursday at International House.

Brautigam, author of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, focused on correcting popular misconceptions about China’s involvement in African affairs.

Chinese companies have been increasing their influence in Africa for more than 50 years, Brautigam said, but Western media have often portrayed it as a recent interloper. Its presence has increased and evolved since its arrival.

“China is now creating incentives for Chinese businesses to do business in Africa,” Brautigam said. She added that China found a model for this kind of investment when Japan invested in China in the ’70s and ’80s.

Brautigam argued that, while China’s industrial investment in Africa is much larger than its aid, its efforts are often much more effective at stimulating positive growth in the continent than Western aid.

“Large Chinese loans are less likely to be embezzled than Western loans,” Brautigam said. “They provide an agency of restraint.” Because the money generally remains in Beijing, it makes it harder for governments to misuse the funds; it is allocated to companies to do work in Africa, rather than being given directly to governments, she said.

China is interested in both well- and poorly-governed countries, which worries many Westerners, she said. Whether their fear of unmitigated Chinese influence over African governments is justified, however, remains unclear.

“I predict that the impact of Chinese engagement in Africa will be marginal,” Brautigam said.

Thursday’s talk is the first of this quarter’s “The World Beyond the Headline” lectures. It will be available online at the Center for International Studies Web site.