By Peter Eigen, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Peter Eigen is a member of the Africa Progress Panel, chaired by Kofi Annan. He is the founder and chair of the Advisory Council, Transparency International, and chairman of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. The views expressed are the author’s own.
China’s growing presence in Africa is one of the region’s biggest stories, but even seasoned analysts cannot decide whether this booming relationship is good or bad for Africa.
Critics say Chinese strategy is entirely self-promotional, aimed at maintaining access to Africa’s precious mineral resources even when that means propping up odious governments. China’s supporters say the Asian superpower is strictly neutral and business-oriented, preferring to generate economic growth not a dangerous dependency on aid.
China has certainly been contributing to Africa’s economic growth, both in terms of trade and with building infrastructure. All over the continent, it has built roads, railways, ports, airports, and more, filling a critical gap that western donors have been shy to provide and unblocking major bottlenecks to growth.
The rehabilitated 840-mile Benguela railway line, for example, now connects Angola’s Atlantic coast with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. And Chinese-financed roads have cut journey times from Ethiopia’s hinterland to the strategic port of Djibouti, facilitating livestock exports.
Meanwhile, bilateral trade between Africa and China continues to grow at an extraordinary pace, reaching $160 billion in 2011 from just $ 9 billion in 2000.
More from CNN: Is West losing out to China in Africa?
But some 90 percent of Sino-African trade is still based around natural resources – oil, ores, and minerals. And exports of natural resources by themselves do not help Africa to develop as we can see from the examples of Nigeria and Angola, Sub-Saharan Africa’s two largest oil exporters.
First, oil and mining are not labor intensive industries. So while natural resources may create impressive headline growth figures, they do not necessarily translate into widespread job creation.
Second, as we saw in the Netherlands in the 1960s and Norway today, large oil and mineral reserves can distort the local currency, pushing up prices of other exports, such as agricultural products, and making them much harder to sell overseas.
Third, without careful management, oil and mineral revenues have often fuelled corruption which has a severely negative impact on a country’s development. It’s notable, for example, that China is not yet one of the supporting countries for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an initiative to promote transparency and accountability in the governance of natural resources. Read further.
The relationship with ‘the West’ was not much better for Africa. Give them loans and charge them interest and let them pay for ever. Not to speak of the earlier colonial exploitation.