Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.
The dominance of China in Africa can fill one with awe, no matter what your feelings on the matter. To some, it has the feel of the Borg in Star Trek assimilating all, or Amazonian army ants, conquering everything in their path. In fact, some react to the Chinese in the same manner as one would to army ants: simply throw something incendiary in their paths to slow them down, move out of the way and wait for them to pass, and complain about what they have wrought afterwards.
The fact is, however, the Chinese have every right to be in Africa. African nations are grateful for the roads they have built when few others would do so, the same roads that World Bank planning teams once would talk about for years but never develop, and the African leaders are no doubt grateful for the new construction rising throughout the continent.
The truth is also that the Chinese aren't alone in Africa. Turkey, India, Malaysia, Russia, Israel, Brazil, the Gulf States, and South Africa have all become major players on the continent. Turkish-built hotels are going up especially in North and East Africa. Dubai is building ports, Malaysia is investing in textile plants, the Saudis in agriculture, the South Africans in banking, shopping malls, and many other things, and the list just goes on. In fact, the non-OECD members are doing quite well in Africa, thank you. The rules and the playing fields are changing and the old order is not adapting. In America, we find ourselves saddled with our own cumbersome procedures and rules, and worst of all, our belief in the superiority of our own empire, just as the British and French once believed in the eternity of their own Empires. If Africa is the future, our place in that future is shrinking.
Yes, it is true that we cannot compete with the Chinese in the same way that China does business. We don't have the top down approach in planning and the private and public sectors don't work closely together beyond lip service to the genius of both. However, Africa is changing too. A middle class is beginning to develop in some countries, and a middle class is one with a growing private sector. The Chinese power lies in their relationship with the political leadership. The future in Africa belongs to those who develop a middle class filled with merchants, entrepreneurs, and consumers. No economy can go on forever with only the elite as primary consumers. Modern media will not permit this. Look to the Arab springs to see this. The season of discontent is upon us, and the winners will be those who meet the needs of their citizens.
The American strategy in Africa should be one of developing the middle class and linking our businesses with their businesses in partnerships so that we both have interdependent markets. Our AID programs should be retooled to move away from a traditional Peace Corps approach to development to one of building capacity and training for an entrepreneurial society that provides jobs for the many and not just on a one-on-one basis. The weakness of a top-down approach is that the people below see the benefits at the top and they don't see the trickle down to them. This cannot go on forever. The weakness of a bottom-up approach is that it is not cost-efficient and does not affect a population outstripping available jobs and markets. Our primary approach should be strengthening the middle class and providing jobs both in America and through our programs in Africa.
The president of the United States addressed in his State of the Union the need to strengthen the middle class in America. We now need to make that link to Africa as well. If a stronger middle class means a stronger America why would not the same be for Africa?