The debate over China's role in Africa continues to rage. One side contends that China is a rapacious neocolonial oppressor, while the other sees its involvement as a miraculous alternative to decades of failed western aid. To a large extent, however, realities in Africa have rendered this debate academic: China already has become an indisputably significant force in the continent's development, with substantially increased commitments and engagements just in the past few years. Pragmatism argues for moving the discussion ahead to how China's involvement can yield the greatest benefit for Africa, China and the rest of the world.
China's role in Africa is dynamic, with deep and complex roots. Yet by pursuing the following three opportunities, Africa and China, along with foundations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), can promote economic development and the reduction of poverty on the continent. @Body-SubheadNew:Strengthening African development strategies and capacity Chinese leaders frequently make state visits to Africa. On their return to Beijing, they often take a "cheque book" approach to aid, charging Chinese government ministries with fulfilling commitments to high-level African officials for construction, infrastructure, health, agricultural or other projects. China has, for example, launched more than 10 agricultural demonstration centres in Africa to expand research and development on crops, irrigation, agricultural engineering and other potential drivers of agricultural reform.
To date, however, these centres often operate in a vacuum, poorly connected to the recipient countries' national programmes and with limited access to local farmers. The Chinese approach to aid and investment presupposes that an effective public sector exists in the recipient country. This is not always the case. African countries must continue to take more responsibility for their development agendas instead of leaving them in the hands of others, even if those others are well-meaning. It will therefore be necessary to create more explicit and comprehensive development strategies for agriculture and other sectors.
Planning is a skill, and African countries should develop it to make sure that the aid they get from China and others can be readily used and expanded. @Body-SubheadNew:China's programmes must be linked At the meetings of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation held in Egypt last November, Chinese leaders repeated their commitment to connect more closely with host communities, measure their results and make their projects more sustainable. These comments may reflect an understanding, held by many who follow China's work in Africa, that projects often have not realised their promise.
These are all positive developments for Africa. China's investments must become more linked to a development strategy for the relevant country - have clear objectives and span more than a single project. China's government and corporate leaders must establish performance targets from the outset, provide appropriate and transparent road maps for achieving goals and develop ways of measuring outcomes.
Considering that China has sent agricultural experts to Africa since the 1950s, the country's current agricultural-extension efforts on the continent are small with fewer than 1,000 experts. Several Chinese agricultural experts believe these programmes have had a negligible impact. Generally, each African country decides on the technology, expertise and training that China should provide, often with a wide range of teaching formats without clear curriculums or objectives.
Such programmes could prove valuable, but they would be more effective if planned and executed with a better understanding of specific countries' conditions and local issues. Other desirable features include relevant best practices and evaluation systems to measure a programme's short-term impact, such as increases in productivity or the skills of farmers, and long-term, sustainable gains such as higher levels of rural income.
@Body-SubheadNew:Encourage more collaboration While some believe that China wishes to go it alone in Africa, there is an increasing amount of evidence to the contrary. China's engagement with national and regional organisations and leaders in Africa on a variety of projects has increased significantly. A formal dialogue among donors is taking place in the development assistance committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Many NGOs, foundations and academic institutions in China, Africa and elsewhere are beginning to work together. An example of this co-operation is China's invitation to academics, African health officials and international representatives to attend an international roundtable in Beijing late last year on China-Africa health collaboration. The discussions could promote greater co-operation between China and other partners - through temporary staff transfers, joint missions and pilot projects - in delivering health assistance to Africa.
Enormous opportunities exist for shared learning and improved models for programmes in agriculture, health and financial services, to name just a few fields. China could catalyse the efforts of African countries to develop economically and lift their people from poverty. Let us move the debate beyond "good versus bad" and "China versus the West" to capitalise on the opportunity at hand. Steve Davis, who is based in Seattle and Beijing, is a senior adviser to McKinsey's social-sector practice. Jonathan Woetzel is a director in McKinsey's Shanghai office