What do African civil society organizations think of the rise of China and South-South cooperation?

June 6, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

The Belgian NGO coalition 11.11.11 has published an interesting paper summarizing the views of 58 African civil society organizations in 11 differentchina in africa economist countries on ‘South South Cooperation’ (SSC) – mainly China’s growing role in Africa (see Economist stats, right – keep clicking to expand). It’s nuanced and an excellent counterweight to the simplifications of the ‘scramble for Africa’ diatribes in the Western press, which Deborah Brautigam gets so exercised about. Some highlights:

Discourse [this is a Belgian NGO, after all]: ‘CSO representatives voiced a clear positive appreciation of the rationale and core principles of SSC. This does not mean they were ‘fooled by a shiny wrapping’. On the contrary, they also expressed doubts about whether and how the discourse will be put into practice, especially since the observance of the key principles relies solely on self-compliance by emerging powers.

They pointed out that acting as equals was difficult when one party was a low income country and the other the world’s second biggest economy. They mentioned many examples of ‘win-win’ that did not mean equal benefits.

Yet they indicated that the framing of SSC gave a wholly different ‘feel’ to the cooperation. They appreciated the straightforwardness of emerging powers and the notion of reciprocity being embedded in the cooperation, especially when contrasted with the rhetoric in North-South Cooperation, which they experienced as patronising and often hypocritical.

The emphasis on respect for national sovereignty and ownership triggered particularly interesting reactions. CSOs explicitly voiced their support for the principle of non-interference and considered it to be a true asset of SSC. Yet, they also feared that the lack of conditionality would undermine the fight for good governance, democracy and respect for human rights.

China in Africa Mother and MedicineThis ambiguous position is partially explained by (1) bad experiences with political conditionality imposed by [northern] DAC-donors, (2) not automatically equating non-interference with the absence of political conditionality, and (3) having different expectations towards different donors, in the hopes of benefitting from complementarity.

The support for non-interference or non-conditionality in SSC should not automatically be interpreted as support for a radical shift towards non-conditionality in North-South Cooperation but does show the debate on political conditionality is overdue.

The often nuanced views and ambiguous arguments illustrate a wait-and-see attitude: emerging powers may talk the talk, but will they walk the walk?

Impact: There is some consensus on the pros and cons of SSC. Looking on the bright side, CSOs applauded the BICS [Russia apparently doesn’t count] for scaling up their cooperation with Africa while DAC-donor budgets are under pressure. In particular the BICS’ fast and cost-effective contributions to basic infrastructure, technology transfer, telecommunication and access to scholarships were highlighted.

Another often-mentioned advantage was the improved access to affordable consumer products, from textiles and shoes to affordable medical products and agricultural equipment. All in all, the BICS were valued for their quick delivery, and as a source of inspiration and expertise for tried and tested responses to development challenges.

However, in the same breath, participating CSO representatives flagged a number of clear downsides. Their number one concern was SSC’s toll on local economies. Lower prices and widespread corruption enable Chinese, Indian and South African companies to undercut local producers and suppliers, forcing them out of the market. CSO representatives didn’t feel this was compensated by gains in local employment, because of substandard working conditions, especially in Chinese companies, and the alleged import of workers.

According to them, the competition caused by SSC was even being felt in the informal economy, e.g. via Chinese street vendors. Local producers and workers were often considered worse off, but the gains for consumers were also put into question. The satisfaction with the improved access to affordable consumer products was countered by many complaints about the quality of the (Chinese) products, which according to CSO representatives were a safety hazard and a danger to public health. Several interviewees feared the rise of xenophobia (read: Sinophobia) and even violence against immigrants from emerging powers in the long run.

Additional drawbacks in the economic domain were the possibly exploitative natural resource deals with some emerging powers and the lack ofchina-in-africa-image-liberiacorporate social and environmental responsibility by companies from emerging powers.

In the political domain, participating CSO representatives valued the emerging powers and SSC as a mitigating factor in skewed international power relations. Yet, they also feared the consequences of increased rivalry between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ powers, or of the competition between North-South Cooperation and South-South Cooperation. They feared that their alliance with one side would damage the relations with the other side: ‘If two elephants fight, the grass suffers.’

In national politics, participating CSOs feared that with no conditions attached, SSC undercuts the fight against corruption and for human rights and the efforts to improve leadership accountability.

CSO Involvement: Civil society is only by exception involved in the practice of emerging powers’ SSC (in contrast to private and state actors). Looking ahead, CSOs were convinced that civil society has an important role to play, both as watchdogs signalling negative side effects of South-South cooperation, and as facilitators in the implementation of SSC. They also identified the lack of transparency and the exclusive character of SSC as major obstacles to that ambition. CSOs strongly felt that coalitions with CSOs in emerging powers could provide them with the leverage to ‘break open’ SSC.’

June 6, 2013
Duncan Green