Monday 7 February 2011

Africa: China in the minds of impressionable African kids

We are going to ABC school

My less than salutary views of China’s apparent invasion of Africa are continually reinforced with the bits of news that seem to show that China’s activities in Africa are not entirely for the long-term good of Africans.

I was irked this time by a tweet that came into my Twitter stream minutes ago.

It started with this tweet

@eolander If you don't think #China is moving to a soft-power strategy in #Africa: read this - they plan to build 1000 schools: [1]

To which I responded

@eolander Building primary schools is commendable but that is hardly the vehicle for knowledge transfer, is it?

I got this response

@eolander @forakin Africa's development needs extend beyond pure knowledge transfer. Building schools seems to be a wonderful price of entry to the African market.

There are so many strands of discourse with this development, the idea that the Chinese would build 10 ICT driven model primary schools in Kenya is quite commendable and must be applauded, and this intent would be scaled out to 1,000 such schools across Africa giving the lucky pupils a basic educational grounding in life.

One basic context

This however throws up a host of issues, one of which was exemplified in Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls [2] (OWLAG) in South Africa, the benevolent lady shelled out $40 million of her own money to build that school and it drew a number of plaudits and condemnations.

In my view, I felt building one $40 million school where she had complete control of quality, management and oversight was something she could well do and it might serve as a model for schools that the government and other philanthropists might build in the future.

The other view was that she should have contributed the $40 million for 40 $1 million schools and that would have spread the opportunity but depreciated the quality because spread so thin we would have had to rely on the failing governments who are not making adequate provision for schooling in the first place to provide infrastructure, staff, support, inspection, monitoring and all.

It would have had all the makings of a logistical nightmare and prone to failure if standards could not be synchronised across the whole franchise compared to focus on a single school.

Extrapolating this view, for governments to welcome this idea at this level of the education ladder shows obvious and probably unforgivable failings of African governments to address the need for good primary school education.

Another Sino-African job imbalance

The standard of those schools might well be such that the staffing would not be by Africans but the opening for another influx of the Chinese of another profession – this time, teachers rather than engineers and entrepreneurs. To the million add another 50,000 Chinese ready to mould the minds of our dearly impressionable children.

In the meanwhile, we all think our children are getting a good education which they are, but whose minds would they have when they have finished?

Africans in the Chinese mould

The next stage to this is the building of model secondary schools that would take in the graduates of the primary schools, those who fail to make the grade would be a ready under-skilled workforce for the many Chinese industries that are growing around the continent.

Having been imbibed with the “Chinese Work Ethic”, they would be sophisticated sweatshop fodder for scandal-prone FoxConn-like [3] organisations, herded, kettled, run like the typical country folk of China that man the manufacturing lines of Chinese industry, living in atrocious bomb shelter conditions [4].

{Foxconn has seriously improved its human resources management in China but would Chinese companies have that kind of scrutiny in Africa? Where they do would we trade-off the opportunities they bring for the welfare of our people?}

Indeed, we need our African children at work, the good primary school graduates are 6 years away, then the secondary school intakes have another 6 years of reinforcement to make up the probably shift-leader and foreman class of the industry.

The risk of higher education

One would suppose universities would be the next stage but that is the dangerous part, that is where real knowledge and technology is transferred, that is where the spirit of independence is cultured, that is where ideas, solutions and entrepreneurs will emerge from and that would be the stiff competition to the Chinese Industry Complex [5] that is laying foundations as solid as pyramid bases all around Africa.

Again, on the surface it is all for the good, but the long term considerations of this seemingly “good intentions” use of soft power cannot of essence be for the noblest and altruistic reasons.

Africa already has many universities, they need funding, they need endowment, they need good management, I would rather we had Chinese money flow into those institutions, the Chinese brain-boxes join the faculties, Chinese professors of renown bring their wealth of knowledge just as they are bringing their money to give Africa the kick start it really needs.

Graduates of these universities would have more affinity for their localities; they will contribute to their communities, encourage development in their countries and be the kind of role models worthy of emulation that would really lift both our educational standards and the people in general out of poverty.

A fisherman without a boat or a lake

We are constantly told of the Chinese proverb – Give a man a fish, you feed him a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him his whole life.

That would be too simplistic a recipe for success, they have fed the man a day, even taught him how to fish, but there are no lakes to fish in and where there is water he has a rod but no boat – that is the context of this incipient soft power offensive that looks so commendable if it were not cynically sinister on closer scrutiny.


[1] Kenya Broadcasting Corporation - KBC News - China to build primary schools in Kenya

[2] Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls []

[3] Scandal-hit Foxconn sets sights inland - People's Daily Online – Other related articles on the page point to serious human resources issues.

[4] Underground world hints at China's coming crisis - Telegraph

Addendum giving context to this blog.

[5] China's economic invasion of Africa | World news | The Guardian

Analysis of this news story requires another blog but a few interesting excerpts for starters.

"If you want to start something – and be the boss – Africa is the place to do it."

"Chinese work very hard, very quickly," he says. "But here we are training local people to do the work, and if someone does not understand, he works slowly. You have to watch." Read in the context of the engineer in charge who speaks halting English.

Other Sino-African blogs I have written

Nigeria: NaijaLeaks and why China is bad for Africa

South Africa: Why again China is bad for Africa

Comments: Why China is bad for Africa

Africa: How to make China good for Africa

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