Africa, China and governance: A new colonialism?

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For the past week, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has been on a whistle-stop tour of Zambia, Tanzania and Ethiopia. In Zambia, Secretary Clinton –- along with ONE’s very own Dr. Sipho Moyo -– attended the Ministerial Forum for the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the centerpiece of the US’ trade relations with Africa. In Tanzania, she highlighted some of the successes of US aid, including Feed the Future. In Ethiopia, Secretary Clinton met with Jean Ping, the Chairman of the African Union, to discuss regional issues, as well as with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

China in Africa
Photo courtesy of DJ Clark on Flickr
From a governance perspective, it has been a fascinating visit, with Secretary Clinton keen to stress that governments must be accountable and should provide an environment in which civil society organizations can operate freely. Beyond this general message, two speeches in particular have caught my governance-obsessed eye.

First, in an interview aired on the current affairs show “Africa 360”, Secretary Clinton spoke of a “new colonialism” in which African resources are exploited and leaders paid off, with little left behind for the people. The concern, as Secretary Clinton asserts, is that a “new colonialism” may undermine the efforts of the US and other countries that have a stronger interest in poverty reduction and good governance than some of those -– read China –- who are increasingly active in Africa. Others would, and have, vigorously disagreed, pointing to the long history of colonialism in Africa by western powers and to the much-needed investment, jobs and growth that countries such as China have contributed to many African economies. (see Deborah Brautigam’s blog and the excellent Africa-Asia Confidential for more in-depth, albeit western, analysis).

Second, in a speech at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Secretary Clinton warned African leaders that repressive governments south of the Sahara risk seeing the sorts of revolts that have flared up during the Arab Spring. Repressive governance breeds discontent, and in the era of the Internet and social media such discontent cannot –- despite the best or worst efforts of some governments to control the flow of information and hinder the activities of civil society -– be suppressed. As Clinton put it, African leaders ignore their citizens’ demands at their own peril.

Some readers -– perhaps some African and Chinese readers of this blog –- may not appreciate having a US Secretary of State touring the continent, providing lectures on good governance and the risks of a “new colonialism”. If so, we’d love to hear from you. But it may be of some comfort to hear that for Secretary Clinton “good governance ultimately is whether or not people believe they are governed well” (“Africa 360” interview). If such an approach to governance -– one that puts people in Africa center-stage, rather than people in London or Washington or Beijing -– were put into practice, it would provide a welcome change from too many years of, dare I say, neo-colonial, “we -– the west -– know best.”

Follow Alan on Twitter: @AlanHudson1

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