Africa and China, the end of the idyll?

Xi Jinping

The traditional Sino-African Cooperation Forum is currently taking place in Dakar (Senegal) in a less optimistic atmosphere than in previous editions. Under the easy explanation of caution in the face of the threat of COVID, it is not as bombastic and optimistic a summit as it used to be: the absence of heads of government has reduced it to a meeting of ministers accompanied by experts.

But aside from this downgrading, there is also the worrying, and in some cases conflicting, development of the cooperation between China and Africa that was so enthusiastic a few years ago. Money lent by China to several republics has been spent - sometimes squandered or mired in corruption - and has not delivered the expected economic development.

It is clear that the pandemic did not, on the contrary, help the economic development that was anticipated. The most visible positive result is the improvement in some infrastructures, although time is showing that they are of poor quality, a consequence of improvisation and recourse to cheap materials. Many suffer from defects that are not easy to remedy. People feel the frustration.

Perhaps expectations had been exaggerated. The works generated hardly any jobs for nationals, and the self-consumption practised by the technicians and workers who came temporarily from China did not bring about an improvement in the modest local economies either. Nor have the pompous intentions of promoting relations and knowledge between peoples been achieved.

The hundreds of thousands of Chinese flown in on special planes to carry out the construction work barely interact with the more open and hospitable locals. The most telling evidence of this is that there have been hardly any inter-ethnic marriages or frequent friendships.

However, the worst part of the experience is the indebtedness in which several of the countries that have benefited from the credits now find themselves. Between 2008 and 2018, the continent's indebtedness rose from 20 % to 56 %. Thirteen countries appear to be high risk, which closes their possibilities of obtaining credits. 

Disenchantment is a reality that creates social tensions and political complications in slow and difficult democratisation processes. The experience is not over, but the hopes it raised have been dashed. The general impression is that China benefited from cheap raw materials and in return left behind shoddy work and impossible mortgages.