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The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative: what’s in it for Africa?

The huge Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum recently concluded in Beijing. 37 heads of state attended, along with droves of policy advisors and numerous thinktanks and research institutes, including IDS where I work. Monica Mutsvanga, Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, attended on behalf of the Zimbabwe government. By all accounts it was a lavish affair, with grand speeches and big commitments totalling $64 billion. But what to make of it all from an African perspective?

As discussed on this blog several times before (see here, here and here), while Chinese engagements with Africa can be framed in terms of ‘new imperialism’ or part of a benign process of ‘mutual learning’, in practice a more nuanced perspective is needed. African states have agency in the process of negotiation, and the Chinese always adopt an incremental and adaptive approach to policy, in Africa as in China. There is no single top-down plan to be forced on unwilling recipients.

As our studies of Chinese (and Brazilian) investments in African agriculture (in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – reported in an open access World Development issue) showed, what emerges varies from country to country, project to project, depending on how negotiations play out. And this very much depends on which Chinese state owned company, from which province in China, is involved, and how African states and officials negotiate. Sometimes the outcomes are disastrous – inappropriate technologies and failed projects – but sometimes positive dynamics unfold. No surprises here: Chinese engagements are very similar to aid from Denmark, the UK or the US, just more focused on productive infrastructure and perhaps more honest and straightforward.

Beyond the BRI rhetoric

At the BRI Forum there was grand talk of mutual benefit, inclusive approaches and green and sustainable development. Just as with western aid, forget the rhetoric, and look at the practice. Chinese geopolitical and commercial ambitions are clear. The BRI is certainly about regional, even global, political influence, especially through trade. With coal mines and power stations being opened under its banner, forget the green credentials for now. As a strategic player, who plays the (often very) long game, the benefits to China of all the roads, ports and other infrastructure being built are obvious.

This does not mean though that such investments are disadvantageous to host countries and regions, just because China benefits too. The TAZARA railway built between Tanzania and Zambia in the early 1970s still provides an important trade link, assisting economic integration. New investments may too – but only if designed in the right way, and subject to careful deliberation and negotiation at a local level. Being too eager (or desperate) to receive Chinese investment could be dangerous.

Minister Mutsvanga’s speech in Beijing had a hint of this. Repeating the ED ‘mantra’ (her term) that Zimbabwe is ‘open for business’, she continued:

Zimbabwe has fertile soils and a favourable climate for farming and agro-industry. It is a treasure trove of much desired mineral wealth. Zimbabwe has gold, diamonds, emeralds and other precious stones. There is the diverse energy offering of hydroelectric power, thermal and coking coal, methane gas. For new and green energy there is, platinum, lithium, uranium and abundant solar. Base metals galore include chrome, nickel, vanadium, tin, rare earths and scores of others.

This sounds more than being open for bilateral negotiations around mutually beneficial investment; more an invitation to a resource grab. The Chinese are not immune to this, as the sorry tale of diamond mining in Marange shows. But it needn’t be this way: being open for business doesn’t mean open for any business on any terms.

Waving the flag, the state-run newspapers in Zimbabwe hailed the minister’s visit, and the prospects for Zimbabwe. But the list of supposed BRI projects – such as the new parliament – were planned long before, and nothing to do with building a corridor for trade. To link with the BRI hype in Beijing, the Chinese Ambassador to Zimbabwe opened a BRI art exchange exhibition, demonstrating how the two countries were connected. Cultural exchange is certainly a good thing, but Minister Mutsvanga, I think, was looking for more.

Corridors for development?

So what might a corridor development look like that has wider benefits for development, and is not simply a route to facilitating extractivism? A recent study carried out along the eastern seaboard of Africa – in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique – has looked at four very different corridors, all notionally connected to the BRI – LAPSSET, SAGCOT, Nacala and Beira. All involve major port and road/rail developments, linked to a variety of energy and agricultural investments of varying scales (see the earlier blog on Mozambique).

Our research contrasted corridors constructed as ‘tunnels’, conducting valuable resources out of a country and importing goods to metropolitan centres, and ‘networks’, that allow linkages to rural hinterlands and a dynamic of development associated with the investments. Each of our case studies showed elements of both at play.

Corridors, as Euclides Gonsalves explains for Mozambique, are about ‘acts of demonstration’, linking political ambitions to local development. The grand, stylised performances at the BRI Forum in Beijing also play out in villages and project sites in African rural areas. Enlisting and enrolling actors, and material artefacts (grain siloes, extension centres, new roads and so on), are part of the game. Enacting corridors has political and material effects, as some people are included and some excluded, and certain political interests are promoted. The net benefits may be positive, but the performative aspect is key, he argues.

Many corridors are about constructing imaginaries, and creating an economy of expectations, Ngala Chome argues for LAPSSET in Kenya. The corridor has been long planned, and while port facilities are being built in Lamu, many follow-on investments have not yet materialised. Anticipation, expectation and speculation create a new political economy around prospective corridor sites, as we see in the pastoral rangelands of Isiolo where the pipeline and road is expected to traverse. As our work under the PASTRES project shows, pastoralists in these areas complain this has resulted in a massive growth in speculative land deals.

A struggle over development and its directions is unleashed by corridor developments. Everyone has been crying out for investment, but when it comes, the terms of incorporation are inevitably uneven. As Emmanuel Sulle shows for the sugar and rice plantations in the SAGCOT corridor area of Tanzania, processes of displacement and disenfranchisement unfold. And this is even with ‘inclusive’ business models, such as outgrower schemes, heavily promoted by agricultural investors across the corridors.

Networks not tunnels

What are the policy recommendations from our APRA corridors research? Here are the highlights:

  • Policy appraisal must include political economy analysis to explore the potential winners and losers. External capital/infrastructure investment mobilises local interests, including local capital and the state, creating new patterns of differentiation. This means appraisal must go beyond the standard economic assessment to a wider social and political analysis.
  • The design of a corridor – and the associated business models promoting agricultural investment – make a big difference. Opportunities for a more networked organisation, avoiding the limitations of a ‘tunnel’ design, need to be explored, especially around the design of transport infrastructure that can benefit local economies.
  • Terms of inclusion and exclusion in corridors are mediated through a range of local institutional and political processes. For example, land speculation and the revitalisation of older conflicts over resources may occur as a result of corridor development. Benefits may be unevenly shared in already unequal societies, with women and poorer households missing out.
  • Processes for negotiating corridor outcomes require the mobilisation of less empowered actors – including women and poorer people – and their organisation around clear guidelines – such as those within the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on land tenure – that ensure terms of incorporation into corridor investments are not disadvantageous.
  • Support for legal literacy and advocacy, as well as the organisation of disadvantaged groups, will help people to be able to articulate demands. This requires building on local organisations and networks to help counter the power of appropriation of local elites in alliance with the state and investment capital.

All these are relevant for any investor, and for any corridor-style investment. I hope Minister Mutsvanga and the BRI planners take note, and avoid the rush to invest and take a more patient, deliberate approach that creates networks not tunnels.

 

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Photo credit: Ian Scoones. Photo credit: Ian Scoones, Nampula, Mozambique

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Roads, belts and corridors: what is happening along Africa’s eastern seaboard?

The main port at Nacala, Mozambique

The eastern seaboard of Africa from Kenya to Tanzania to Mozambique has become a major focus of attention. The ports – from Bagamoyo to Beira – are seen as the gateway to Africa, a place where great riches can be found. Such ports, and the road and rail links that connect them, are now being redeveloped at a frenzied pace. Much of this is about mineral export, but agriculture is part of the picture too, as a number of the new (or often revived) corridors are seen as ‘agricultural growth corridors’, a term on the lips of many ambitious planners and investors.

Eastern Africa’s ports are also vital staging posts in China’s massively ambitious ‘belt and road’ initiative to connect to the rest of the world. The maritime ‘roads’ across the India Ocean, connect to ‘belts’ that stretch across Asia to China, and through Africa and Europe. The Chinese vision, promoted enthusiastically by President Xi Jinping, is one of an interconnected world, supported by the best of Chinese infrastructure, providing new opportunities for profitable exchange and market-driven export-based development.

For the sceptics this is a replaying of colonial exploitation; imperial ambitions in a new age with new loci of commercial power. An interest in the eastern seaboard of Africa is of course not new. The ports, roads and rail links of played other roles in previous eras – from the slave trade to colonial extraction. For those with strategic geopolitical interests in the region, not least India who sees the Indian Ocean as important militarily and economically, recent developments have major implications.

 

A canon pointing out to sea at the Portuguese colonial slave fort on Ilha de Moçambique

The Nacala corridor: more than coal?

I recently spent a week in Nampula province in northern Mozambique. This is the location of the Nacala corridor, which stretches from the coal mining region of Tete through southern Malawi to the port of Nacala. The visit was part of a project, led in Mozambique by Euclides Gonçalves, on the political economy of agricultural growth corridors in eastern Africa. It is a small component of the new DFID-funded APRA programme, which has just produced its first Working Paper by Rebecca Smalley on this theme.

The Nacala corridor has been the subject of much controversy around the Prosavana project, a trilateral development cooperation project involving Brazil, Japan and Mozambique, discussed in earlier work on China and Brazil in African agriculture. In its early incarnations Prosavana was aiming to roll out massive agricultural investment projects along the corridor, focusing on Brazilian investment and expertise, replicating the much hailed success of the Cerrado in Brazil. These grand plans however unravelled through a combination of organised international opposition, collapsing commodity prices, the Brazilian political crisis and the plain fact that investing in large-scale agriculture in Africa is incredibly difficult, requiring very deep pockets given the risks.

Now things have moved on. The grand plans – at least in their original form – have been put on hold, but there is much happening below the radar. The rail line carrying coal from Tete is fully functional, as is the new port facility at Nacala. There is a new airport at Nacala and the road is in good shape. Land is cheap, good quality and relatively plentiful, and the processes for transfer of ‘DUATs’ from communities to investors is relatively straightforward, as long as some bureaucratic and consultation hoops are jumped through. Locally and nationally there is much political will supporting external investment from the Mozambican party-state, seen as a way of generating growth in a poor part of the country prone to supporting opposition groups. As a source of patronage and backhanders no doubt there are other incentives too.

The Vale coal rail line cutting across the rural Mozambican landscape

At one level the corridor to the new Nacala port facility, established on the other side of the bay to the original Nacala port, is only about exporting coal. Vale, the huge Brazilian conglomerate, has invested millions, now in partnership with Japanese investors. The rail line is increasing freight capacity, although local passengers have limited opportunities to use the railway and local villagers must wait ages for long trains to pass as the rail line cuts through their lands. Others are involved too. For example, Chinese construction companies are also involved in infrastructure development. With improved facilities in the original port, and the potential, as yet unrealised, for the railway to be used for more than coal and the odd passenger train, others are eyeing up the region too.

Agribusiness and development

From established agribusiness operations, such as Rift Valley Corp’s Matanuska banana operation near Manapo, to smaller, more prospective investors in agriculture from Brazil, South Africa, Portugal, India, Jordan, Canada the US and more, the corridor appears to be generating interest, although not at all as part of a coordinated grand plan. Such investments are often supported by international ‘aid’ funds that help to ‘de-risk’ investments or provide opportunities for cutting costs (such as the use of Brazilian tractors supplied through the More Food International programme; again the subject of earlier research being continued under APRA).

A Brazilian tractor in use on a new commercial farm

Local farmers may benefit too. Such operations generate employment opportunities, although the labour conditions are poor, and they may not benefit villagers in the immediate locality. Outgrower arrangements are often mooted as part of improving local relations, a model heavily promoted earlier by AgDevCo in the Beira corridor as part of a UK aid programme, but many fail because generating export quality, regular supplies in sufficient quantities is seriously tough. Local players are also jumping on the corridor bandwagon, with government officials and business people investing in land, and linking up with new external investors.

Who benefits? Political economy questions

It is a highly dynamic situation that the research is only now starting to examine. Corridor investments clearly provide much needed infrastructure in locations that have been marginalised, and remain extremely poor. But who will benefit? An extractivist regime that sees the corridor merely as transport route to export natural resources (in Nacala’s case coal) may see limited local benefits, as the rail line acts more like a ‘tunnel’ connecting mine to port, with little interaction with local people and economies along the way.

A more integrated corridor development may yet emerge, however, as the corridor becomes an attractor for economic activity that spreads out as a network, rather than an isolated, linear connector. For this to happen, as in the old ‘growth pole’ model, other economic activity has to be attracted, and the benefits of infrastructure development shared locally, and also more widely. In this case to the hinterlands of the eastern seaboard, across regions to the landlocked countries of Malawi and Zimbabwe, for example.

But, even if such wider activity happens, some will appropriate the spoils more than others. As in other areas where rapid economic transitions happen through land investments, there is plenty of room for speculation, patronage and deals that create new elites, excluding others. Political economy really matters, and in contrast to much existing research on growth corridors that focuses on the ‘business case’ and the sequencing of infrastructure, this is the emphasis of our research in Mozambique (Nacala/Beira), as well as Kenya (LAPSSET) and Tanzania (SAGCOT).

The longer history of corridors along eastern Africa is one of exploitation and extraction: from slaves to plantation crops to minerals. But how can contemporary investments – which I believe should not be naively rejected – be made to work for the majority, not just the few? This is the underlying challenge, and one our research hopes to investigate, engaging along the way with investors, local villagers and the brokers and intermediaries among state and non-state actors who can make a difference to the way corridor development pathways emerge.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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