Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Chinafrica (4) - Watching for PRC Influence in Africa

This article, by Korinna Horta of Environmental Defense, will be published in Spanish in the October 2006 issue of the magazine Ecologia Politica (issue no. 31) from Barcelona. See www.ecologiapolitica.info.

China: A New Scramble for African Resources

Africa is the only continent where the number of desperately poor people continues to grow and social indicators keep worsening. But the continent is not poor. Tens of billions of dollars worth of oil, minerals and other natural resources are being taken out of Africa every year. In a cruel phenomenon known as the 'resource curse,' the countries richest in natural resources are often where corruption, human rights violations and destruction of the environment lead to further impoverishment and sometimes armed conflict. The income from exports generated by extractive industries, instead of contributing to increased well-being, further entrenches rapacious elites that loot their countries' assets. In the process, prospects for democratic development are undermined.

Largely prodded by civil society protests, the G-8 group of top industrialized nations and the institutions they dominate, such as the World Bank, are now regularly including demands for good governance, transparency and a greater focus on reducing poverty in their programs. Unfortunately, their demands have not been accompanied by reforms in their own aid institutions and there has been little progress in improving the quality of their aid. For example, their anti-corruption rhetoric may sound rather hollow given that it is largely limited to lecturing African governments while failing to hold their own multinational corporations and official export-credit-agencies accountable for bribery of foreign officials.

Nonetheless, the greater focus on misappropriation and mismanagement is a welcome and long overdue development that provides a new framework for civil society to hold accountable governments both in the North and n the South. However, the prospect that this new political space might finally lead to the recognition of the rights and needs of ordinary African citizens faces an uncertain future. One major factor in this is the voracious appetite for Africa's resources from a non-G-8 country, China. Chinese president Hu Jintao and other senior officials are frequent
visitors to the continent to secure oil and raw materials for China's rapidly expanding economy, open up new markets for Chinese products and obtain diplomatic recognition for the One-China principle, according to which
Taiwan is part of China.

From Zimbabwe to Sudan, China is deepening links with some of Africa's most oppressive regimes. Zimbabwe, where President Mugabe's attempt to quash opposition forces left millions of people homeless, is a notorious example. In exchange for platinum and gold, China not only supplied the Mugabe government with fighter jets and troop carriers, but Chinese workers also built the president's new home.

Political leaders in Africa have called the West hypocritical for being concerned about the continent's rapidly expanding relationships with China. Their point is understandable given that most Western countries
are keen on trade and investment related to China and because there is little evidence that their own investments in Africa have had a lasting positive development impact. Many African governments like dealing with China because uncomfortable subjects such as human rights, the environment and transparent use of funds are not brought up. This signals that the rights and needs of African populations will continue to be stampeded into the ground with growing
misery and untold human suffering. Africa already supplies about one third of the oil and gas needs of China's energy-hungry economy. Marriages of political convenience now abound. Sudanese oil flows to China, for example, help ensure that China will use its seat on the U.N. Security Council to oppose strongly worded resolutions on the Darfur conflict. Angola, one of China's new energy hotspots, has come under strong criticism by the International
Monetary Fund and others for corrupt oil dealings. Billions of dollars in oil revenues are reportedly unaccounted for while hunger and disease plague large parts of the country's population. In exchange for oil, China is granting the Angolan government several billion dollars worth of credits, some of it for the repair of the country's war-ravaged
railways and other infrastructure. To the bitter consternation of Angola's long suffering people who are desperate for work, construction activities are to be carried out by a work-force brought in from China.

The latest victory of China's charm offensive in Africa took place in August 2006 when the government of Chad cancelled a planned visit by Taiwanese officials and instead signed a cooperation agreement with the Peoples Republic of China. Chad is one of Africa's newest oil exporters and its government had long resented the fact that the World Bank, which had supported the building of the country's oil facilities, imposed - under pressure from international public opinion - the condition that most of the oil revenue be used for anti-poverty programs. Faced with internal power struggles, Chad's dictatorial president Déby would rather use the funds for weapons purchases.
Earlier this year, Déby indicated he no longer felt bound by the agreement with the World Bank. As a result, the World Bank temporarily suspended all funding for Chad and froze the off-shore bank account into which the oil money was deposited. Chad's new relationship with China in all likelihood will serve as an excuse for institutions such as the World Bank not to push hard for real reforms that would benefit ordinary Chadians. The argument already being made elsewhere is that if the World Bank is not involved, then the Chinese will be there and that would be worse. Indeed, Chad now seems to have an alternative not unlike its neighbor Sudan.

Chinese workers and capital are also engaged in controversial large dam projects. An example is Sudan's Merowe dam on the Nile which is set to emulate the mistakes of past large-scale hydropower projects: Tens of thousands of people are forcibly displaced without adequate restoration of their livelihoods while downstream impacts on the ecology of river systems and the communities who depend on them are largely ignored. In Mozambique, China plans to build the Mphanda Nkuwa dam on the Zambezi River whose physical and social consequences are likely to overwhelm a region where neither regional nor national government are equipped to address the environmental and community impacts. As usual in this type of project, rural electrification or other local benefits are not part of the package. Proponents of the large dams argue that there is a trade-off between development and the rights of local people. Yet in most cases the needs of both could be met by small hydropower and other projects designed with the input of local communities.

It is well known that extractive industries, such as oil, gas and mining, as well as the construction of large dams have all too often left terrible legacies of environmental destruction, social disruption and human suffering. Two large-scale international efforts, which were supported by Northern and Southern governments, some sections of industry and civil society organizations, have documented this extensively. These were the World Commission on Dams WCD) which published its report in 2000 and the World Bank-sponsored Extractive Industries Review (EIR) published in 2003.

Both the WCD and the EIR are concerned with making large-scale investments in dams and the extraction of oil, has and mining compatible with poverty alleviation and sustainable development. Both call for transparent and participatory frameworks for decision-making to ensure that citizens and especially directly affected people can influence decisions that will profoundly alter their lives. So far, broad civil society networks in southern and northern countries have worked to put pressure on the World Bank, other northern-based aid organizations and some southern governments into respecting these types of recommendations. That challenge has grown immensely with China's expanding role in a renewed scramble for Africa's resources.

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