'To end poverty, first build a road,' the Chinese say.
Here was the debate: A Human Rights Watch report recently linked Rwanda to war crimes in Congo, a disturbing mark against a nation that has been held up as an African success story. While Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, has improved the country’s economy and kept it stable in the wake of a brutal civil war, he has also been accused of being repressive and autocratic.
It’s not just Rwanda: The late prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, was praised by the West, but under his regime, journalism has been a dangerous pursuit.
How should an influential country like the United States navigate relationships with authoritarian regimes that have improved living standards in their nations, like Kagame did in Rwanda and Zenawi did in Ethiopia?
In the wake of China’s growth and the West’s continued stagnation, many developing countries now look to China for aid, investment and trade. United States officials have repeatedly warned Africans to be wary of China’s warm embrace. But might China’s way of engaging in countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia provide lessons for the U. S.?
Like many East Asians, the Chinese have old-fashioned ideas about development. “To end poverty, first build a road,” they say. Boost agriculture and manufacturing. Soak up low-skilled workers, then move up the value chain.
Take Rwanda, where aid from Western donors is now at risk because of several critical reports on Rwanda’s alleged secret support for a violent rebellion in nearby Congo. Seventy-five percent of U.S. aid to Rwanda goes to health, the bulk of it to HIV/Aids, with less than 10 percent supporting economic growth. We’re keeping more people alive, but we’re not doing much to provide jobs.
Asked whether China would join in the growing boycott, the Chinese ambassador to Rwanda demurred. His government planned to keep supporting the roads, agricultural and power projects that make up the bulk of its aid portfolio.
In authoritarian Ethiopia, the U.S. shipped in close to $450 million in surplus U.S. commodities last year: more than half of all our aid. Beijing gave a loan to build a toll road leading to the coast, and supported the construction of the Eastern Industrial Zone. In January, a Chinese company, Huajian, hired and trained 800 Ethiopians to make ladies shoes for the U.S. market. Six large Chinese firms have now invested in Ethiopia’s thriving leather products sector, but none from the U.S.
The U.S. can’t close its eyes to atrocities in Africa. Sanctions and threats will sometimes have their place. But we could do a lot more to help Africans build their own economic pathway to better governance.