Saturday, 1 October 2011

The new scramble for Africa

When someone hears the term, 'the scramble for Africa', most people would conjure up the image displayed below i imagine - an image that depicts colonialism at a time when Empires were the hegemonic Superpowers of the world. Or maybe proponents of the neo-colonialist argument would suggest that the scramble refers to how foreign powers continue to influence and 'control' their former colonies through the medium of TNCs and FDI.

However, as according to Wallerstein superpower influence shifts in sinusoidal cycles called Kondratiev waves (or super cycles) waves, it is the emerging superpowers that are subtly and in the case of China, not so subtly staking their claim to African wealth, specifically natural resources. For example, the World Bank estimates that of the 45million hectares of land for which deals were struck in 2009, 70 percent were in Africa.

Listen to the following podcast for an overview:

Does this mark a shift towards South-South linkages and a development pathway which moves away from the common assumption that the main solution for African countries to escape the poverty trap lies in increasing trade with rich countries? Or is China and the other emerging superpowers (like India & the Gulf states) as well as foreign institutions including governments, carving up the African hinterland like Empires of the past did in a new colonial carve up, in which profit and self-interest is the only motive, not development?

China is investing in three key areas in Africa:

i) Natural resources - Chinese demand for basic commodities like timber, metal ore, fish and of course OIL. China is also unabashed in who it deals with, a possible explanation for why it is one of the few superpowers who are buying up so much land in Nigeria, Sudan and Angola - some of the world's most geopolitically unstable areas. Further to this, according to the World Bank, 21% of land deals in Africa in 2009 were for biofuel production leading to concerns that some parts of the African continent may become the biofuel breadbasket for the Middle East and Asia!
ii) Manufacturing  - China, often to the detriment of local producers, has flooded African markets with its' cheap consumer goods at very competitive prices. This arguably stalls development and entrenches people in poverty further!
iii) State run and private firms pour FDI into Africa. This ranges from oil installations, infrastructure improvements to hotels and tourism complexes.

Further to this The Times newspaper on Wednesday 28th 2011 reproted on 'Huge land deals as the world buys into Africa':
 - Karuturi Global, the world's largest producer of cut roses, is to buy 370,000 heactares (914,000 acres) in Tanzania, nearly 1% of the country's agricultural land.The land would also be used for palm oil, sugar cane and other cash crops.

"Most land acquisitions (grabs) are cloaked in humanitarian considerations and instigated by cash-rich countries with scarce resources seeking to reduce their dependence on international markets for their own security" says Oliver de Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food.

The reality is often that land is bought and sold cheaply on a 99 year lease (like a high risk futures bet in the world's stock exchanges). Unsurprisingly, it is the rural dwellers, pastoralists and local herdsman that have been pushed off the land they have occupied for generations. The worrying theme, once again, is that it is the local people who do not benefit and remain in their poverty trap. At this juncture it is worth noting that not all countries leasing land get a raw deal. "When done right, these sorts of arrangements can benefit everybody involved" says Stephen O'Brien, UK parliamentary undersecretary for state for international development. Further to this, Alex Vines commented in the Times article that "import substitution" could benefit the host countries. "It is not as simple as neocolonialism, it's cleverer than that," he said. "There is a big buregeoning market in Africa and good money to be made, so while some of the production is for export, some if for re-export inside Africa where economic and population growth projections are strong."

So when done right all is ok - the problem is that currently there no set rules in place. A major shift in tightening up such deals should emerge at the end of this year, when a report on land grabs for the UN is finalised, but until it is down to the companies and the African leaders to look after the people and ensure they get the best deal...i am not too hopeful then at this point in time, until, in my opinion, an aggressive set of rules are published that state clearly the expectations and procedures for land acquisitions and that they make key stakeholders accountable!

In the coming years, as it has done already, China will play a critical role in Africa's future. Success will depend on a range of complex factors:
i) How the West deals with China's growing influence in the region and whether it see's it as a competitor or co-operator?
ii) How African leaders decide and choose who to put first; their personal needs or their peoples'?
iii) How the West perceives China in the future - do we still hold our colonial imaginations to heart for the Dark Continent?

Questions to consider & points for discussion:
1. Do Western countries have the right to criticise China's policies in Africa?
2. How will increasing South-South links change the face of global development?
3. Is China's aggressive approach in Africa morally and ethically right?And to what extent are the 'land grabs' an new form of colonial carve up?
4. Who will the winners and losers be in the end? Will history repeat itself and what are the possible solution to avoid this outcome?

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