Knowledge for natural resources: a fair exchange?

A banner for the 2006 FOCAC summit Copyright: Flickr/sabbat1cal

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China and Africa are forging links using Africa’s resources, but is it an even deal? Talent Ngandwe investigates the situation in Zambia.

Links between China and Africa are growing. More than 700 Chinese companies are active in Africa, and trade between China and the continent is worth US$55 billion.

China gets roughly a third of its oil and many other important natural resources from African countries. These assets have helped fuel China’s remarkable economic growth.

But China has been accused of exploiting Africa’s wealth of natural products.

To counter this, China has pledged to overtake the World Bank as Africa’s main financial provider.

At the November 2006 summit of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), China pledged US$5 billion to set up a China–Africa development fund encouraging Chinese companies to invest in and provide financial support to Africa.

China also promised to train 15,000 African professionals, send 100 senior Chinese agricultural experts to Africa and set up ten agricultural technology demonstration centres over the next three years.

In February this year, Chinese president Hu Jintao

China’s president Hu Jintao
Credit: Wikipedia

visited eight African countries (Angola, Cameroon, Liberia, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Sudan and Zambia) and pledged millions of dollars worth of investment.

To Zambia, for example, Hu promised US$800 million over the next three years. With some of this money, China plans to establish an economic zone ― a centre of commerce, manufacturing and trading ― in the town of Chambishi, where it owns a copper mine.

But not everyone welcomes Chinese involvement.

Empty promises?

Cephas Mukuka, assistant national executive secretary of the Zambia Federation of Free Trade Union says little has been done by China to support the growth of local industries. He told SciDev.Net that the Zambian government should come up with a policy to compel Chinese investors to help set up infrastructure to aid technology transfer in Zambia.

Mukuka says China should commit to long-term investment and set up a university of science and technology in Zambia to help build local capacity.


His views are supported by Lameck Simwanza, programme coordinator for Women for Change, which lobbies for good educational policies in Zambia. He said that even though the investment is purported to be a win-win situation, China appears to be benefiting more.

"Current investment is not working to build our local technology expertise but aims at using [Zambia for] casual labour," Simwanza says.

The Zambian president, Levy Mwanawasa, says now that plans for the economic zone are in place, a policy for transferring expertise and technology should be developed. The move would help create much needed training and employment opportunities for local people.

Transfer of medical expertise would be particularly welcome.

China agreed at the FOCAC summit in 2006 to build 30 hospitals and pledged US$37.5 million to help Africa combat malaria by providing the drug artemisinin and building 30 malaria prevention and treatment centers, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua.

But there is a way to go before China’s promises about malaria treatment are fulfilled. Tackson Lambert, managing director of the University Teaching Hospital, Zambia’s largest hospital, told SciDev.Net that the hospital does not get any malaria drugs from China. Instead it relies on the national medical stores for supplies.

And instead of helping, critics say China is actually giving Africa problems. Zambian markets are flooded with fake traditional Chinese medicines that claim to cure diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, and conditions such as impotency.

Rodwell Vongo, president of the Traditional Health Practitioners Association of Zambia (THPAZ), says that there has also been an increase in Chinese herbal clinics, which are not regulated or do not observe ethical guidelines.

He told SciDev.Net that the credibility of the THPAZ, which represents 40,000 traditional doctors, is being questioned because of fake doctors who have infiltrated the market.

Such claims are leading opposition parties and trade unions to claim that dishonest Chinese workers are coming to Zambia, using Chinese investment in the country as an excuse.

Just starting out

The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, rejects criticism that his country is only interested in Africa because of its raw materials. At a meeting of the African Development Bank in China in May, Wen said his country is committed to helping Africa develop in all sectors of the economy.

Some of the problems arising from China’s investment and donations have been caused because China is a newcomer to international aid issues, says Zeng Aiping from the African Research Centre at the Peking University in China.


Zeng says China’s low level of activity in African science and technology so far is because the country is still learning science from the West and is not accustomed to exporting its science to developing countries such as Africa.

At present, Zeng says, Chinese economic activity in Africa is very business-centred, and research is still highly connected to Chinese companies.

Xue Hong, director of development assistance research at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, agreed. He told SciDev.Net that China’s scientific presence in Africa is highly enterprise-oriented, mainly existing in telecommunications, and sometimes in the mining or oil industries.

He says that Chinese enterprises are the main source of Chinese money in Africa, but this is mainly because China has not developed a mature foreign assistance system that can operate independently.

Xue added that many Chinese companies have not been in Africa long enough to develop the capacity to involve local people. There are exceptions though. He cited China’s National Petroleum Corporation, which has projects in some West African countries and has donated millions of dollars to help develop infrastructure in local communities.

And though Chinese technical aid exists in agriculture and malaria prevention, the projects are small scale and limited to a few countries, so they may not necessarily be experienced by local people, Xue says.

He added that China is also inexperienced in the culture and politics of Africa.

Zeng says that language is also a barrier: many Chinese cannot communicate in English or French.


But he thinks the potential for China to boost Africa’s science and technology capacity is enormous, because China is at a closer developmental stage to African countries than Western countries. Therefore, it has many practical technologies to transfer.


Focused funding


To aid this technology transfer Mwananyanda Lewanika, President of the Zambia Academy of Sciences, believes that it is up to African policymakers to make sure that Chinese funding is directed to priority areas.

A researcher in Zambia
Credit: DFID

"African leaders should stand firm and propose investment in relevant sectors such as science and technology and put skills transfer as a condition for future business deals," he says.

Lewanika says African leaders should concentrate on the resolutions of the last African Union summit in Addis Ababa. There, African presidents backed the role of science and technology in alleviating Africa’s current problems and encouraging future agricultural and economic development.

One country, Namibia, is already taking steps to set up priorities for Chinese investment.

The news agency Xinhua reported that Namibia has asked China to consider seconding experts in infrastructure development in sectors such as agriculture, health, training in information and communication technology and human resources to the African country.

It looks as if China’s presence in Africa is for the long term. Perhaps it is too early to predict what will become of this relationship.

Additional reporting by Jia Hepeng, SciDev.Net China regional coordinator.