The World Bank vs China in Africa

Jeff Sachs tells

Robert Zoellick, incoming president of the World Bank, that

there are "four areas where the bank can have a quick and dramatic success".

The first is food production: Sachs is a big fan of a Malawian voucher scheme

which he’d love to see rolled out across the continent, providing fertilizer

and high-yield seed. The second is, of course, anti-malarial bed nets. But it’s

the last two which interest me:

  • It can help Africa achieve electrification by 2015. It is a cruel myth

    that development without electricity is possible in the 21st century. Rather

    than helping countries ship their oil abroad and then remain dependent on

    wood for energy, the bank should be helping Africa develop its hydrocarbons

    to support regional power grids.

  • The bank urgently needs to help Africa finance roads and rail upgrading,

    starting with a major highway (rather than a two-lane, broken- down road)

    linking the port of Mombasa in Kenya with Nairobi and Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi,

    and eastern Congo. A road and rail network would enormously expand trade between

    Africa and the world.

The Bank certainly could get involved in major African infrastructure

projects, building roads and power plants. But if I were an African leader,

the World Bank would definitely be my second choice for such things. There’s

a new development power throwing its weight around Africa, and it’s called China.

The Chinese, I’m quite sure, could build roads and railways and power plants

much more quickly and much more cheaply than the World Bank – in fact,

they’d probably have started importing workers and actually building things

before the Bank had even got halfway through its process of environmental impact


There are downsides to letting the Chinese fund such things. For one thing,

China has a habit of using Chinese, rather than local, labor – which of

course doesn’t help the local population very much. And the Chinese don’t have

the same corruption controls and other checks and balances which are now part

of every World Bank project, which means that Africa’s physical infrastructure

would be improving much more quickly than its institutions were becoming grown-up

and sustainable. But Africa’s need for infrastructure is urgent, and any African

government should jump at whatever the quickest, cheapest option is. Right now,

that’s much more likely to mean looking east than looking west.

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