A new inconvenient truth?

“China in Africa” – These three words almost inevitably shape recent debates on development cooperation with Africa. It appears to me that discussions by and large follow one of three general narratives:

Firstly (and probably most importantly) Chinese involvement in developing Africa is referred to as the negative example, the kind of “cooperation” – if you can call it cooperation in any case! – that oozes with economic interests and that nobody really wants. This narrative is quite reassuring for us development boffins from the traditional donor countries, isn’t it? It tells us that – despite some negligible problems – we’re overall on a good track when it comes to our style of cooperation with this bunch of nations between Egypt and South Africa.

Next, there is “China in Africa” as an outright threat. Beware! Time is running out for the good-willing traditional development cooperation community before the less-benign Chinese have settled in each and every niche of development activity in Africa. This notion calls for the West to pull itself together and finally get over some of the fuddy-duddy stuff that only costs time and hinders the usual suspects such as DfiD, GIZ and their companions to secure their right to exist in Africa before it’s to late. Be sure that there will always be three zealous Chinese investors for every scrupulous project evaluator from Germany!

Then there’s the narrative entailing a somewhat positive twist about getting things done in Africa the Chinese way. It urges long-established and hopelessly ponderous development agencies in the West to finally simplify their complicated procedures and cut intra-agency red tape. Because – hey! – just look east and you’ll see that Africa can be developed easily and that it’s infrastructure can be improved without big hassle.

Interestingly enough, this usual set of narratives was shattered by a newly-compiled database providing some insights into what China apparently really does in Africa. Reading the article on AidData in The Guardian’s Global Development blog definitely made western development wonks cringe since the account asked for an overhaul of traditional notions about good and evil in the development arena. While I was absolutely sure so far – probably along with most of the entire development community – that China’s cooperation with Africa focuses overwhelmingly on extractive activities, the smallest number of registered projects in the database is actually resource-related. In the meantime, Beijing apparently builds a multi-million dollar 1,400-seat opera house in Algeria. Pardon? Wait, this does not fit into my world view!

It seems, a new narrative on China in Africa has to emerge. A narrative about the Chinese being a cordial donor that cares as much about health and arts in Africa as it cares about the interior of mines. Maybe it’s a charm offensive (The Guardian), maybe it’s about “upfront sweeteners to win government favour” and a “downpayment for future commercial deals” (Stephen Chan). But evidence is there that China does a lot of good things in Africa – an inconvenient truth for our conventional line of argumentation.