Damning view of western aid to Africa puts Chinese rogue status in perspective


ROB CRILLYreviews The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in AfricaBy Deborah Brautigam Oxford University Press, 300pp, £18.99

SEARCH THE published literature on China’s role in Africa and you could be forgiven for thinking that journalists are handed a simple How Toguide before heading to the continent.

First, it might say, pick an impressive infrastructure project such as a dam, a bridge or a railway built with Chinese cash. The introduction should carry a brief description making comparisons with the shantytowns and poverty all around. Paragraph two should identify the gleaming new structure as part of a growing scramble for Africa as China’s rapacious economy demands ever more oil, minerals and metals. Next, quote a local about how the Chinese are hard-working, providing jobs and roads in a country where the government is only interested in filching public money. Then comes the pay-off. China’s role in Africa is deeply disturbing, according to whichever western aid campaigner you can reach by telephone, because it has no interest in improving the human rights or governance of the countries it is backing. From Mugabe to Bashir, Beijing is bankrolling despots and their war machines. Follow those rules and you have your story.

I should know. During five years in the region I must have written that piece half a dozen times for editors eager to cover China’s apparent bid for world domination. Just one problem: we had it wrong, according to Deborah Brautigam’s important book The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa. In it she tackles the myths associated with China’s arrival in troubled countries such as Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. Far from being a thuggish, neocolonial beast, Brautigam’s dragon brings jobs and development to a continent where the West’s version of aid has had little impact. She points out that western donors deliver more aid to Africa than China – often wrongly viewed as the biggest foreign presence. And loans from American, European and British banks come with few human rights conditions, just like Chinese money. Yet China’s motives are eyed with suspicion.

In the case of Angola, Beijing is accused of undermining international efforts to tackle corruption. Critics argue that just when the International Monetary Fund demanded the country improve transparency regarding its oil revenues, China waltzed in, offering pots of aid cash for the black gold. Brautigam says the reality was different. There were no deliveries of cash. Instead, China offered low interest loans with repayments guaranteed by the oil. The money would not even have had to pass through the hands of corrupt local officials. It could be paid directly to Chinese companies building the roads, hospitals and bridges so desperately needed by a country shattered after decades of war. Meanwhile, western loans came with no such benefits.

Brautigam’s analysis recasts China’s role with detailed evidence and interviews, and presents a damning portrait of western aid. China’s role as a donor is based on China’s own history as an aid recipient, she argues, giving Beijing a powerful insight into what may and may not help Africa. According to this analysis, it is western governments that are pursuing a neocolonial agenda.

It is a compelling argument, although only the economically literate will be able to follow the lengthy descriptions of financial institutions and development theory. At times she skates over counter-examples, such as Sudan, where China has certainly slowed the search for peace. But the inescapable conclusion is that China may not be the rogue donor of popular imagination. For that, we may have to look rather closer to home.

Rob Crilly was an East Africa correspondent of The Irish Timesfrom 2004-2009. His book, Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War, has just been published (Reportage Press)