Jeffrey Sachs depicts a clear and concise picture of why the World Bank has got it all wrong and why China is getting it all right in Africa on the Guardian’s Comment is Free. He is mostly right – structural adjustment programmes have devastated African economies and if anything caused a surge in that very corruption that the World Bank blames as the cause of its failures.
Yet, one thing Jeffrey doesn’t quite explain is why China is acting like a Samaritan in Africa, dispensing sound advice alongside investment in infrastructures. Still, an excellent read, which I am reproducing below.
China’s lessons for the World Bank
As the World Bank clings to its free-market ideology, China is providing more practical help for developing countries.
The China Daily recently ran a front-page story recounting how Paul Wolfowitz used threats and vulgarities to pressure senior World Bank staff. The newspaper noted that Wolfowitz sounded like a character out of the mafia television show The Sopranos. At the same time, while the Wolfowitz scandal unfolded, China was playing host to the Africa Development Bank (ADB), which held its board meeting in Shanghai. This is a vivid metaphor for today’s world: while the World Bank is caught up in corruption and controversy, China skilfully raises its geopolitical profile in the developing world.China’s rising power is, of course, based heavily on its remarkable economic success. The ADB meeting took place in the Pudong district, Shanghai’s most remarkable development site. From largely unused land a generation ago, Pudong has become a booming centre of skyscrapers, luxury hotels, parks, industry, and vast stretches of apartment buildings. Shanghai’s overall economy is currently growing at around 13% per year, thus doubling in size every five or six years. Everywhere there are startups, innovations, and young entrepreneurs hungry for profits.I had the chance to participate in high-level meetings between Chinese and African officials at the ADB meetings. The advice that the African leaders received from their Chinese counterparts was sound, and much more practical than what they typically get from the World Bank.
Chinese officials stressed the crucial role of public investments, especially in agriculture and infrastructure, to lay the basis for private-sector-led growth. In a hungry and poor rural economy, as China was in the 1970s and as most of Africa is today, a key starting point is to raise farm productivity. Peasant farmers need the benefits of fertiliser, irrigation, and high-yield seeds, all of which were a core part of China’s economic takeoff.
Two other critical investments are also needed: roads and electricity, without which there cannot be a modern economy. Farmers might be able to increase their output, but it won’t be able to reach the cities, and the cities won’t be able to provide the countryside with inputs. The officials stressed how the government has taken pains to ensure that the power grid and transportation network reaches every village in China.
Of course, the African leaders were most appreciative of the next message: China is prepared to help Africa in substantial ways in agriculture, roads, power, health, and education. And the African leaders already know that this is not an empty boast. All over Africa, China is financing and constructing basic infrastructure. During the meeting, the Chinese leaders emphasised their readiness to support agricultural research as well. They described new high-yield rice varieties, which they are prepared to share with their African counterparts.
All of this illustrates what is wrong with the World Bank, even aside from Wolfowitz’s failed leadership. Unlike the Chinese, the bank has too often forgotten the most basic lessons of development, preferring to lecture the poor and force them to privatise basic infrastructure, rather than to help the poor to invest in infrastructure and other crucial sectors.
The bank’s failures began in the early 1980s, when, under the ideological sway of President Ronald Reagan and prime minister Margaret Thatcher, it tried to get Africa and other poor regions to cut back or close down government investments and services. For 25 years, the bank tried to get governments out of agriculture, leaving impoverished peasants to fend for themselves. The result has been a disaster in Africa, with farm productivity stagnant for decades. The bank also pushed for privatisation of national health systems, water utilities, and road and power networks, and grossly underfinanced these critical sectors.
This extreme free-market ideology, also called “structural adjustment”, went against the practical lessons of development successes in China and the rest of Asia. Practical development strategy recognises that public investments – in agriculture, health, education, and infrastructure – are necessary complements to private investments. The World Bank has instead wrongly seen such vital public investments as an enemy of private-sector development.
Whenever the bank’s extreme free-market ideology failed, it has blamed the poor for corruption, mismanagement, or lack of initiative. This was Wolfowitz’s approach, too. Instead of focusing the bank’s attention on helping the poorest countries to improve their infrastructure, he launched a crusade against corruption. Ironically, of course, his stance became untenable when his own misdeeds came to light. The bank can regain its relevance only if it becomes practical once again, by returning its focus to financing public investments in priority sectors, just as the Chinese leadership is prepared to do.
The good news is that African governments are getting the message on how to spur economic growth, and are also getting crucial help from China and other partners that are less wedded to extreme free-market ideology than the World Bank. Many African governments at the Shanghai meeting declared their intention to act boldly, by investing in infrastructure, agricultural modernisation, public health, and education.
The Wolfowitz debacle should be a wake-up call to the World Bank: it must no longer be controlled by ideology. If that happens, the bank can still do justice to the bold vision of a world of shared prosperity that prompted its creation after the second world war.