China and Brazil in Zimbabwe

There is much talk – and even more hype – about the role of the emerging economies – the BRICS countries – in development. Aid programmes have been established by China, Brazil, Russia and South Africa, and others are following suit. In the G20 and in the Busan meeting recently, a whole new modality for aid giving was hailed. A new way of doing development cooperation is in the offing, and the hegemony of the western powers will be offset, some argued.

Well maybe, but not yet. As Jonathan Glennie pointed out recently, the Gates Foundation, run by a few very rich US citizens, provides more aid than China. But it is of course not the volume of aid that matters, but what it does – and in particular how it is linked to other forms of investment. This is where aid – seen by some (mistakenly) as a pure form of giving – gets messy. Aid is always tied in some way, despite the disclaimers from the likes of the British government. It is always linked to trade interests, investment opportunities, security and foreign policy agendas. Of course it is. And if this is what the US or UK does, why not China and the rest?

China is of course fairly explicit about this. They have a keen interest in Africa’s mineral resources to fuel their massively growing demand for primary resources. They will exchange access for aid, but it is often fairly transparent what the deal is. Brazil is of course different, but there are many who see Africa as a source for expansion of Cerrado-style agriculture and a source of investment for sugar, soy and other enterprises on other land frontiers away from the Brazilian Amazon.

But it is not all such brutal self-interest. Such relations are more complex and nuanced, and have to be understood in the context of history, as Deborah Brautigam argues effectively for China’s relationship with Africa. Both China and Brazil have an important sense of solidarity with Africa. This relates in China’s case to long-standing support for liberation movements. This may translate into some fairly dodgy political affiliations in the contemporary world (like in the case of Zimbabwe), but it comes from a genuine commitment to assist. Brazil of course dwells on the historic links with Africa via the slave trade, and the solidarity that emerges from the African connection. It also sees itself as linked geographically – part of the southern hemisphere, and a different zone of influence.

And of course both China and Brazil are proud of their achievements in reducing poverty and improving agriculture. And rightly so. China has seen the most dramatic decreases in poverty in human history, and they are keen to show others how to do it too. They have had big achievements in agriculture too, with real opportunities for sharing, as Li Xiaoyun and colleagues explain in their recent book. Brazil is a world leader in agricultural technologies, and through its agency Embrapa, and wants others to benefit, so have begun to establish offices in Africa, with the first opened in Accra, Ghana. Brazil has also created novel social welfare programmes (the Bolsa familia being the most famous) that have lifted many out of poverty, creating employment and growth.

With many donors shunning Zimbabwe over the past decade, China and Brazil have been knocking at the door. Much Chinese support has been in the minerals sector, although they have interest in the financing of the tobacco sector, and some interest in cotton. Chinese finance has been critical in the rebirth of the tobacco industry following land reform, and has created a rebound no-one was expecting, with now small-scale farmers leading the way where once only large white-owned tobacco estates dominated. In 2011, a major loan was offered by China, with US$342 earmarked for agricultural machinery. They have also built an Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centre at Gwebi College, recently opened by Vice President Mujuru. But, contrary to some NGO reports, they have not been involved in extensive ‘land grabs’. Meanwhile, Brazil has started an extensive exchange programme with agriculturalists in the ministry, with extension officials, researchers and policymakers travelling to Brazil to marvel at the achievements of Brazilian agriculture. Under their ‘family farm’ programme, support for mechanised agriculture involves the provision of tractors, and the support for mechanisation of smallholder agriculture, and a US$300m loan was offered in 2011.

The Future Agricultures Consortium is about to start some research, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) looking at the changing relationship between China and Brazil and Africa in the context of new ‘development cooperation’ relationships in Africa. This work will include studies in Mozamique, Ethiopia, Ghana and Zimbabwe, and will focus on the details of the relationships emerging between African and Brazilian/Chinese players.

Clearly a diversification of support, and a sharing of ideas makes much sense. African countries have for too long been reliant on a narrow set of expertise channelled through aid and technical cooperation programmes from Europe and the US, or via the ‘international’ programmes of the CGIAR or the Gates foundation, which replicate such perspectives. But with new players on the scene, does this now mean that African perspectives, local knowledge and located experimentation will have more chance of breaking through?

I wonder. The top-down, expert led stances of past development interventions – from colonialism to the western aid era – are being replicated. Aid is about power, and sadly in Africa this remains skewed to the outsider, wherever they come from.


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13 responses to “China and Brazil in Zimbabwe

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  12. Wouldn’t it be nice to know how i can have one of those tractors to use in Nyamandlovu. How do we get them and how much do they cost? is there any financial assistance from the banks or government?

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