Following the convening of a tripartite meeting between Africa, China and the US in Monrovia, Liberia, Adams Bodomo writes of his scepticism around the value of meetings premised on the notion that others should speak for Africa. It is grossly misplaced, Bodomo maintains, to expect 'investment technocrats' from two competing global powers to operate altruistically with Africa's social and economic development foremost in their minds.
This article is a short reflection and personal reaction to the recently held trilateral meeting between Africa, China and the US on 'Corporate social responsibility' in Monrovia, Liberia, from the 24 to 25 February 2010.
The first time I heard about the idea of 'tripartite' or 'trilateral' meetings was during an October 2009 conference meeting in Beijing organised by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. After more than 13 years of experience giving lectures in China, I am aware that in Chinese academic discourse one is not expected to come out swinging bluntly and wildly in an academic counter-argument, especially if one is an invited lecturer (otherwise you would not get invited again), so I chose more subtle ways to convey my Chinese colleagues that the idea of convening meetings between the US and China to discuss Africa sounded disrespectful to Africa as a sovereign, volitional, decision-making entity.
I am therefore perplexed to hear that the above-mentioned meeting went ahead and am eager to hear the opinions of readers, especially those that follow the debates on Africa–China relations and more broadly on the 'Emerging powers in Africa' dialogue, along with similar kinds of so-called Africa–China–US tripartite meetings initiated by companies and foundations. On the surface, it looks like a good idea. The most developed country on earth and the fastest developing country globally – China – could team up to give life-support to a helpless Africa. However, upon deeper reflection, I am uncomfortable with it and think that there is more to it than meets the eye.
Here is why I propose that Africa should not try to be party to such 'tripartite' meetings.
First of all, the whole idea is poorly conceived. What would be the rationale? We are told in the announcement about the above-mentioned meeting that it is to 'discuss how companies can contribute to economic and social development in Africa'. This is not convincing, in the least. Here one must read between the lines!
For this rationale to have a real tangible, honest truth-value we need a multinational, UN-style meeting, not a tripartite meeting. After all, social development (especially for a whole continent) is a very comprehensive concept that is best discussed in the environment of more international and necessarily multilateral expertise, rather than in the confines of top-notch economic and investment technocrats whose primordial aim is to make as much money as possible, rather than any truly altruistic preoccupations.
On the contrary, I see the whole arrangement as a euphemism for a number of scenarios that go to serve mainly Chinese and American interests and very few African interests, if any all.
One, it looks like it is meant for Chinese companies to learn the 'game' of doing business in Africa. This would be the main Chinese interest. These Chinese companies are new in Africa as far as doing business is concerned, and therefore need to learn the ropes in how best to exploit Africa to the same degree, if not more, as the Western companies have been doing throughout the decades. As an example, look at what is happening with Shell in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, which has led to massive protests and even rebellion by indigenous people of that part of Africa.
Two, it would be an occasion for American and Chinese companies to find 'common ground' in, bluntly put, fixing prices, especially on issues of bidding for contracts. Western companies are hurting a lot with Chinese competitive bidding and seem eager to say, 'Hey, let us fix prices here! Please, be careful not to bid too low!' As a concrete example about cut-throat bidding, currently there is stiff competitive bidding and negotiation on Ghana's newly found oilfields between Western and Chinese companies. Ghana and other African countries would be better off in such competitive bidding situations, all things being equal.
These trilateral meetings are obviously then meant to serve Chinese and American companies. One might say that, after all, these companies are doing what they should be doing: taking measures to make more profits. However, note that the groupings that are facilitating these meetings are governmental and quasi-governmental Chinese and American bodies, so both the Chinese and American governments are directly or indirectly involved, while all we have on the African side are recycled, retired leaders like the former Ghanaian president, John Kufuor, whose stint as head of state was tainted with corruption.
I am still wondering what Africa has or will get out of this meeting, but surely Chinese and American companies would have carved out a lot out of this meeting.
So, in reality, it is a bilateral conference on Africa by China and the USA. This is not a trilateral conference. In any case, only one African business seemed to have been involved.
More importantly, Africa will never gain anything from bilateral conferences by two competing rivals on how to do business in Africa. Note that these trilateral meetings are taking place at a time when Sino-US relations are at one of their lowest ebbs in recent times, so the whole enterprise therefore raises eyebrows. Yet these two rivals are seeking common ground in Africa. Therefore, we should be asking ourselves, why is Africa the place for such consensus?
Africa would be better off and can gain much more by dealing with each side separately and on its own terms. If Africa wants an international forum to discuss business investments, it is best to do it from multilateral perspectives, under the aegis of multilateral, global bodies like the UN, UNESCO and the WTO (World Trade Organisation), and not at such so-called trilateral conferences. And what about the African Union?
Given the above arguments, it is therefore my hope that more of such bilateral China–US conferences to discuss Africa will not take place in the future. Africa is not a sick agency in need of special emergency bilateral conferences (disguised as trilateral) to 'discuss how companies can contribute to economic and social development in Africa'. As mentioned above, it is ironical and rather suspiciously harmonious for two competing superpowers, with their relations at one of their lowest ebbs, to try to find common ground around how best to do business in Africa.
Some people may be convinced that such tripartite Africa–China–US meetings are win–win–win cases for all but I would like to claim that these are mostly win–win–loss cases against Africa. Africa must strive hard to be a master of its own economic growth and socio-political renaissance agendas!
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* Adams Bodomo is associate professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics, School of Humanities, University of Hong Kong.
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