Why Africa is Turning East

Dambisa Moyo's Winner Take All is a worthwhile attempt to focus attention on China's increasing influence in Africa but the author fails to adequately tackle the subject

In Winner Take All, Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian economist and writer, presents us with a Malthusian vision of the world’s future against the backdrop of an ascendant China. She analyses the pressure that this new economic giant is bringing to bear on world resources, its growing financial reach, and the socio-political implications of this, especially in Africa. 

The essential premise of the book is that an increasing imbalance between world supply and demand in commodities (including land, water and energy) threatens the “double whammy” of increased demand from burgeoning populations for food and clean water on the one hand, and a relative scarcity of inputs (in particular water and arable land) on the other. 

While the underlying logic of Moyo’s argument is undeniable, her views are nonetheless undermined by an unquestioning acceptance of current demands and constraints as permanent. It is taken for granted for instance that China is on an inevitable path of continuous growth, an assumption that is even now being challenged: with copper stocks piling up, cement demand failing and energy usage flattening, China is cutting the cost of borrowing for the first time since December 2008 in an attempt to boost economic growth. With memories of the “threat of Japan” only a few decades old, one would do well to remember that current realities are not immutable.

Dambisa Moyo provides a good snapshot of China Inc’s strategies in Africa. In particular, she points to those factors that make China more competitive in Africa than its Western counterparts. She dismisses the notion that the Chinese are only out to exploit Africa, and instead makes an argument for China pursuing a largely beneficial and symbiotic relationship with the continent. She does share some widely-held concerns regarding China’s involvement (lack of transparency, poor labour laws, lack of concern for the environment), but generally argues that it is for each host country to ensure that environmental, social and other conditions are met. While this description of Chinese involvement in Africa contains no anti-Chinese bias, the same cannot be said of her discussion of Western institutions and governments, which she perhaps unfairly accuses of fiddling while Rome burns. 

While the acknowledgment of China’s comparative success at a local level is welcome, the book is nonetheless weak in its discussion of the differences between Western and Chinese strategies for development. A single paragraph is devoted to explaining that one is “largely state-led” and the other “private sector driven”, and that “both paradigms seem capable of engendering growth”. This is hardly groundbreaking, and at a most basic level fails even to recognise that a fundamental part of China’s incredible economic success over the last two decades has been a well-orchestrated merger of the two frameworks into a dynamic hybrid. 

Furthermore, while Moyo does refer to the 2008 financial crisis, the links between it and the current eurozone crisis — and China’s race for resources — are not made. China’s appetite for resources is not only a question of feeding its population and economy, its “shopping spree” is also inextricably linked to its creditor position with regard to the US Treasury, and the inherent risks of holding such vast cash reserves. So while it’s undoubtedly catchy to state that China’s race for resources is a “race from [internal] revolution”, this is to skip over the interdependence of domestic, macroeconomic and foreign policies in a world in which exchange rates, current account balances and national debts are inextricably tied to trade and investment decisions. So even a brief analysis of “Chimerica” and the new relationship of the big two fails to take the analysis to its logical conclusion, that the two countries enjoy equal status, and cannot do without each other. As such, the reader is bound to feel — at least from the point of view of grand economic geopolitics — slightly short-changed.

Dambisa Moyo does, quite rightly, question the relevance and effectiveness of existing international institutions in meeting the challenge. Sadly, the final pages of the book, which set out the “way forward”, fail to provide anything of the sort, rather falling back on a nebulous idealism: national preferences are said to be superseding communal interest, and state meddling in the form of protectionism and subsidies confusing the investment climate; what is needed is a global agency focusing solely on resource scarcity. Despite calls for cooperation, sanctions are the chosen tool to achieve a normalisation of resource availability, a tactic that, the writer suggests, might not meet with universal success. Perhaps most strangely, Dambisa chooses this moment to introduce new topics — such as a call for more GM crops and energy efficiency — and what might otherwise be a strategy descends into a brief list of bullet points.

China’s race for resources and global supply is a subject undoubtedly in need of academic treatment, and the aim of Dambisa Moyo’s book is clearly to make Western readers sit up and take notice of China’s activities, a worthwhile attempt in an increasingly interdependent world. Unfortunately however, Winner Take All fails adequately to tackle the subject. The book provides a grand sweep over the world of commodities, and the world’s most populous country’s effect on global demand and available resources.  However, it is equally sweeping in its treatment of China’s interrelationship with the West, and fails to come up with anything but a lacklustre vision for meeting the clear and present danger of resource scarcity in the coming years.

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