There is a close affinity between the UN’s SDGs and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 goals. For example, the first and second UN SDGs of ending poverty and hunger correspond to the AU’s goals of achieving “A high standard of living, quality of life and well-being for all citizens.” Likewise, the third and fourth SDGs which are about ensuring healthy lives and inclusive education also fit nicely with the goals inscribed in Agenda 2063. Overall the development visions of the African Union and the United Nations seems to overlap a great deal.
Yet one more similarity between the two agendas is the central involvement of China in these platforms. Indeed, China’s development success is a common denominator to both AU and UN development agendas. Both as a success story that drives the success of the UN SDGs, and as the world’s largest developing country that is willing to share experiences with other developing countries in Africa and elsewhere. In this regard, the AU commission signed an MOU with China in 2014 for a stronger cooperation on industrialization, innovation technology, infrastructure, and modernization of agriculture techniques. China also invited the AU to be a full member of the China-Africa summit known as FOCAC, and recently opened a diplomatic mission with an Ambassador at the AU in 2015.
Along these lines, China’s Belt and Road initiative, which was launched by President Xi in 2013, can and should be viewed as a vital component of this global governance agenda for achieving poverty reduction and improving living conditions for the least developed. Although Chinese policy makers insist that the Belt and Road is not a rival or parallel to America’s Marshall Plan, the initiative is set to have concrete economic growth through promoting inter-connectivity in the central and East Asian region and all the way to Europe. Connectivity will be both in terms of railways and other hard infrastructure as well as through power grids, customs and trade regulations, and other soft measures such as cultural exchanges and scholars’ exchange programs.
The place of Africa on the Belt and Road Platform?
There are over 60 countries which have expressed interest in being part of either or both of New Silk Road components and over 4000 projects signed in 2015 alone. Naturally, many African countries – especially in East Africa – expressed interest in taking part of the Belt and Road investments. Egypt for example, with the Suez Canal, is a vital strategic location for both the maritime and land portions of the Silk Road, and it is playing its strategic location to hop on OBOR. Indeed, relations between China and Egypt have reflected a strong interest in boosting trade and investments with plans of building a new administrative city for Egypt that’s worth $45 Billion.Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia stand to potentially benefit from OBOR investments as well. Additionally, the building of the logistical/military base in Djibouti as well as several port infrastructure projects in East African countries are among the ways in which African states integrate OBOR plans.
OBOR, as a massive development initiative, is also very much in line with the UN’s SDGs. The scope of OBOR accounts for about 60% of the world’s population, 40% of its GDP, 75% of its energy resources, more than 50% of the population under extreme poverty, and an expected economic output of over twenty trillion US dollars. The five areas of priority of OBOR as set by Chinese authorities include: 1) Policy coordination, 2) Connectivity (infrastructure and technology), 3) Trade facilitation, 4) Financial integration, and 5) People-to-people bond. Many of these priorities correspond well with UN SDGs and are expected to help achieve these goals.
Yet, it is important to distinguish that although the Belt and Road initiative has a lot of goals in common with AU agenda 2063 and UN SDGs, it is nonetheless a Chinese-led platform. Indeed, Beijing is bound to become the hub of such connectivity both as the major financier of these projects and as the architect of the whole platform. It is expected that most deals under OBOR will be carried out mostly through Chinese-led or Chinese-backed financial institutions such as the AIIB, The Silk Road Fund, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.While the outcomes and development goals might be similar, the processes of achieving them are bound to be different under China’s development model than under the OECD or Washington Consensus.
Challenges and Opportunities of China’s Development Model
The evident difference between the Belt and Road initiative and UN SDGs is that the former is being financed through AIIB and other investment-based institutions rather than foreign aid in the sense of the UN SDGs. In fact, China’s development model in general, which sometimes gets referred to as the Beijing Consensus, is structured around investment-driven initiatives as opposed to fungible foreign aid. A recurrent example of this is the infrastructure for resources swap model where the local communities benefit from infrastructure projects which are put in place by Chinese construction firms and the Chinese government gets access to natural resources in return.
One of the unique aspects about the so-called “Beijing Consensus” and China’s development assistance in Africa is that it is characterized by being state-led and centrally planned. When it comes to its implementation in the context of China-Africa relations, China’s foreign assistance is couched in a discourse of win-win cooperation and mutually-beneficial relations. Another particularity of the model, and a source of strength in my opinion, is that it fosters peopleto people relations and puts a premium on enhancing cultural exchanges. Both under the Belt and Road platform and in China’s multilateral relations with African states, there is a focus on investing in scholarships for university students to study in Chinese universities and vocational training programs for professionals of different walks of life to attend skills transfer trainings in China. These programs enhance personal and professional relations and create networks of friendships among Chinese and counterparts in Africa and elsewhere.
Yet at the same time, there are several challenges that are worth pointing out and reflecting on in the context of China’s foreign assistance and development in Africa. First of all, the falling oil prices are big challenge for Chinese companies operating in the barter system of infrastructure for oil. With the substantial decrease in the value of oil, the question is how will Chinese firms cope with such different cost-benefit situation. If Chinese companies raise the cost of their investments, would they still be competitive in the infrastructure market in Africa? Will African countries be able to pay back their loans given the substantial decrease of their annual revenue due to oil prices?
Second, another set of challenges is almost unavoidable in situations of fast growth and prolific infrastructure building and is related to the impacts these projects have on the environment, wildlife, indigenous populations’ rights, and social justice. China’s development model follows very much a top-down approach and in order to attend to the issues listed above, a strong presence of an active civil society is vital to keep checks and accountability of the development projects and their potential consequences on livelihoods.
To close, in light of the presidential election results in the U.S. and Brexit in Europe, many scholars and policy makers alike ponder the future of global governance and the potential future direction of resolving issues such as climate change and sustainable development which require collective action. Although it is still early to tell what the new administration in the U.S. will prioritize in the near future in terms of foreign policy conduct, one thing that’s clear is that the UNSC will look different with a May, Trump, Putin, and whoever France elects as the new president in 2017. It would seem that many scholars and policy experts are now turning their focus on what China and President Xi Jinping can and should do in terms of upholding the fight against climate change among other pressing global issues.
How do you see the role of China in the international development policies in Africa? In what ways are SDGs connected to the AUs development plans? Can there be some lessons drawn about international development policies more broadly, based on the Chinese approach? Join the discussion and leave your comments below.
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