What Is the Biggest Question Facing Western Development Policymakers in Africa?

Image courtesy of Wikicommons.

By Hannah Tuttle


After centuries of unquestioned hegemony on the continent relating to aid and the question of “development,” the United States and its Western partners are up against an adversary that is less transparent, less flighty, and above all, less scrupulous. Willing to make backroom deals with equally unscrupulous African leaders, China builds much-needed roads and infrastructure in exchange for natural resources that its fast-growing and urbanizing population demands. By making deals with governments that are notoriously unaccountable to their populations (Congo being perhaps the most visible example), China ensures that they are the ones who benefit from a country’s natural resources before the populations of those countries themselves.

Who will be able to maintain the Chinese-financed roads and infrastructure when the natural resources are gone and corrupt government officials have spent the ill-begotten profits?

Moreover, by operating through deals with the government, their economic aid packages come with a political stamp of approval, winning African leaders to the Chinese side. On the humanitarian side, the aid money from Beijing, when funneled through government channels, finds itself disproportionately in the regions where the rulers have come from instead of the ones most in need.

USAID, by comparison, describes itself as “the lead U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential,” in stark contrast to its Chinese counterparts. Bound to an ever-changing Congress that has little conception of the African context and falling under the umbrella of large scale and idealistic social change, the Western model is an entirely different beast.

Part of this is the nature of US versus Chinese government structure — whereas American administrations last only four years (and the work of one administration is often undone by the next), China has the ability to plan decades-long strategic goals for partnerships with African nations. Combine that with the inherent decision-making efficiency of a dictatorship compared to a democracy, and the Western economic and political development model looks significantly less powerful than the Chinese.

Leaving that observation alone for the moment, the importance of Africa cannot be understated — it is the most resource-rich continent on the planet, and the one with the largest untapped markets for global goods. It is for these same reasons that the colonizers turned their eyes to the continent two centuries ago. Today, it is the epitome of a high-risk, high-reward investment opportunity, and everyone has a vested interest in having a stake in Africa for the uncertain decades ahead. How can the US compete with such a comparatively unprincipled adversary?

Although we might be disadvantaged on the economic and political side, the Western dominance of the social arena is unparalleled.

This week, as I took a motorbike taxi through the rural areas outside of Mbale, Uganda, children would run out of their houses to yell “Muzungu! Muzungu! How are you?” as I went by. My own discomfort notwithstanding, there is a larger lesson here. Americans are seen as generous, positive and altruistic. My colleagues here in Uganda and my own experiences affirm that white people are largely seen in a flattering light. (When I tell east Africans where I’m from, it is nearly always followed by a big smile and a derivative of “Obama’s country!”)

By comparison, Chinese (as well as Indians) are seen as racist and hateful, rarely on the receiving end of the excited shouts of children as they pass. When I was in Kenya in January, I spoke to several Kenyan employees of Chinese business owners in the area. They bemoaned the low wages and inhumane treatment they experienced at the hands of their employers, an opinion that is held by many east Africans. Regardless of the fairness or accuracy of these portrayals, the fact remains the same: while most Africans express an interest to visit the United States and other Western nations, very few say the same of China and other Asian countries.

If the aim of US policymakers regarding Africa is to maintain our influence, the bottom line is that although we do need to reform our economic and political development models, we can rest comfortably on a social victory.

Even if our relationship with African leaders is strained at times (see Uhuru Kenyatta’s tense relationship with the West illustrated by his battle with the International Criminal Court and his recent speech on the importance of saying no to receiving foreign aid), the average African opinion is that Western presence is preferable to Asian. Where economic and political advantage can be bought, the social is a far more elusive and powerful aspect of the development world. US policymakers should try not to worry quite as much.

Hannah Tuttle holds a BA in Global Studies with a concentration in Development Studies from Colby College in Maine. She is currently based in New York City and works for a small development NGO that operates in remote areas of east Africa.

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