Podcast • January 21, 2011

Howard French on Africa in a Chinese Century

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Howard French. (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3) Fifty years almost to the day after the catastrophic assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo — a Cold War murder ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Howard French. (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

Fifty years almost to the day after the catastrophic assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo — a Cold War murder by Belgium with help from our CIA — the journalist Howard French is sketching an alternative path ahead for African development today. China is the big investor in 21st Century Africa. China sees Africa as yet another “natural-resource play” but also as a partner in growth — not a basket-case but a billion customers who’ll be two billion by mid-century. With the West and Japan deep in a post-industrial funk, China is keeping its focus on manufacturing, exports and markets, “and we’ll have them largely to ourselves,” China calculates, “because the West doesn’t make the stuff middle-class Africans are buying — cars and houses and shopping malls and airports and all the things associated with a rise to affluence. Those are the things that China makes.”

For the New York Times Howard French covered Africa and then China, where he learned Mandarin. He returns to Africa now on a book project, observing and overhearing Chinese migrants to places like Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia and Liberia.

HF: I was struck every time I got on a plane: the Westerners tend to be rich American tourists on their way to seeing lions and giraffes; or aid workers and NGO people — coming with a mission to minister to Africans about capacity-building or democracy and what my father used to do: public health. I say none of this with scorn, but the Chinese have a very different mission. The Chinese that I saw on the planes — and by the way, ten years ago I saw no Chinese; now they’re maybe a fifth of all the passengers — are all, almost to a person, business people. They’ve pulled up their stakes wherever they lived — in Szechuan province or Hunan province — and they have come to make it in Africa. And they’re not leaving until they do. Whatever it takes for them to make a breakthrough in farming or in small industry, they’re going to work 20 hours a day till they make it. They see Africa as a place of extraordinary growth opportunity, a place to make a fortune, to throw down some roots. These are not people who’re there for a couple of years. They’re thinking about building new lives for themselves in Africa. So you have this totally different perspective between the Westerners and the newcomers. One sees Africa as a patient essentially, to be lectured to, to be ministered to, to be cared for. The other sees Africa and Africans as a place of doing business and as partners. There’s no looking down one’s nose or pretending to superiority. It’s all how I can make something work here.

CL: I just wonder: among those development geniuses who argue about Trade vs. Aid as America’s next gift to Africa, in the face of all the Chinese activity buying forests, or building railroads, or planning the sale of billions of cellphones, what is the West’s better bet? Do we have one, or are we still asleep?

HF: I think we’re still asleep.

Yes, Howard French observes a Chinese style of racism in Africa, both familiar and different. “There’s a certain discourse about Africans being lazy or lacking in intelligence or unready, variations on a theme. One guy said to me just last week in Liberia essentially: ‘there’s a thousand-year gap between them and us,’ meaning… culturally, educationally, just sort of temperamentally; the ability to save, to sacrifice, to commit to a long-term project. But there’s an important distinction to be made. Western racism was instrumentalized to justify the sale of black people and their enslavement across the ocean to work as animals of labor on other continents. Chinese racism is, comparatively speaking up until this point, a largely rhetorical phenomenon…”

And what are Africa’s chances of doing well in the new Chinese “deal”? Howard French sees “an incredible opportunity for Africa,” but no guarantees. States with a vigorous civil society, strong elites and an informed view of “how people’s daily and longer-term interests will be served” stand to get good results. “In states that are stuck in the kleptocratic authoritarian mode, the Chinese will pay cash on the barrel for whatever they want and all of the contracts will go through the state house and none of the money or very little of it will enter the public budget. Twenty years from now, China will say: it’s not our fault if the money is frittered away on Mercedes and villas in France and Swiss bank accounts. We paid you exactly the amount we said we were going to pay you. Don’t blame us if you have twice as many people and all of your iron ore is finished.”

Podcast • October 1, 2009

Tracy Kidder: "…faith that looks through death"

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Tracy Kidder. (51 minutes, 23 mb mp3) Tracy Kidder actually finds a needle in the haystack — a kernel of inspiration in a continent of bad news — ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Tracy Kidder. (51 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

Tracy Kidder actually finds a needle in the haystack — a kernel of inspiration in a continent of bad news — in his virtually irresistible new saga (with a Wordsworth title) Strength in What Remains.

The bad news is the ongoing massacres and underlying misery in East Central Africa – in the neighborhood of Rwanda, hard by the killing fields in the Congo today.

The inspiration in Tracy Kidder’s sudden best-seller is a young man named Deo – short for the Latin “Deogratias,” meaning “thanks be to God” – who goes back to his blighted roots in Burundi to found Village Health Works, putting his medical education at the service of war’s survivors.

How we long — writers, book-buyers, interviewers, too — for bulletins from abroad without US Marines or drones in the picture. I like the moment in our conversation when I refer to one of Deo’s signature stories, about the need to build a six-kilometer road to his new health clinic in Kayanza. Tracy Kidder leaps up. “Can I read this?” he asks, reaching for his own book. In the anecdote, Deo, in Africa, was saying that a Belgian construction company would want US$50,000 to build the road, when a Burundian woman with a baby crying on her back interrupted him.

She said: “You will not pay a penny for this road. We become so much sick because we are poor, but we are not poor because we are lazy. We will work on this road with our own hands.”

The next day a hundred sixty-six people showed up with pickaxes, hoes, machetes, and other tools. The road was finished before the Belgian road builders got to bid on the job.

“Who did it?” the professionals asked. “We are the only road construction company in the entire region!”

“Not anymore,” Deo responded.

From Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, pages 255-6.

What I am asking Tracy Kidder here is how to generalize that Deo story to the scale of Africa’s problem and the policies from Washington, the West, and now China, that have been anything but a solution:

It’s not tremendously complicated but it is difficult work. And it’s not the kind of work that some people like to do [because] you can’t do it in Washington D.C.

Too often what happens is that people start out with good intentions and raise substantial sums of money to do their work. Then things start to go wrong: they buy fleets of SUVs for their own use in that country, they call for big huge conferences with experts who don’t speak the language, and then they realize that it is really hard to work in a place like Haiti or Burundi and pretty quickly declare defeat. Before they leave they blame the people they had come to help …

I don’t think the conclusion should be that we give up because it is impossible. I consider effective foreign aid as a debt that is owed by the West to many of these countries, such as Haiti, which has been a virtual colony of the United States. Certainly Europe owes some big debts to many countries in Africa …

The fact is that to have a Burundian leading this effort in Burundi is a really important aspect … I mean you’ve really got to speak the language. You have got to understand connotation and so on. You’ve got to be able to cultivate a local base: people you can trust. I think the effective projects are the ones that, while they have big goals, start with the individual. Let the individual patient teach you how to treat their family, and let that family teach you how to treat a village, and let that village teach you how to treat a province and the province: the nation. You can be working from both ends but you can’t forget the essential part: the local. I mean it’s where we all live.

Tracy Kidder with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, September 22, 2009.