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About the Author

Elsje Fourie
Doctoral candidate (Bath, United Kingdom / Trento, Italy)

I'm a South African PhD student living in Italy and the UK, and looking at African perspectives on China and India's development. Before undertaking my doctoral studies, I did some work on development and conflict resolution in Japan, Indonesia and Northern Ireland. I'll be doing some field research in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya this summer, so hopefully this project will be a chance to combine many of my professional and academic interests.


New Maps for Africa? Part III

Published 30th May 2010 - 7 comments - 1777 views -

In this three-part series, I ask whether African leaders are looking to the Chinese and Indian experiences of development as models for their own countries.  In the first section, I introduced the topic, which is also the basis for my doctoral dissertation.  Last week, I look at the similarities and differences in how China and India have developed, as well as what people mean when they talk of the “China model” or “India Model”.  This final section addresses some common concerns and questions, before closing off with a couple of tentative conclusions. 

When you’re a doctoral student patiently chipping away at the same research question for half a decade or so, you get used to answering a lot of questions about it.  Whether from the slightly tipsy stranger seated next to you at a dinner party, the intimidating academic you hand your business card to at a conference, or the fellow student who has listened to you complain over countless espressos—all pose important queries about your topic and its usefulness.  As someone interested in finding out which aspect of the Chinese and Indian “models” of development African leaders are most interested in following, these are some of the questions I come across most often:

Blue Skies


Do countries really copy each other?  Isn’t every situation too unique?

For better or for worse, countries do try to learn from each others’ successes and mistakes.  Just look at how China, Cambodia, and other countries attempted—often with terrible results—to copy Stalinist Russia during the Cold War, or how Nazi Germany took lessons in fascism from Mussolini’s Italy.  But emulation doesn’t always end in disaster.  Most constitutions and electoral systems in use around the world today were not drawn up from scratch, but rather adapted from already-existing examples.  Everything from the welfare state to the modern postal system had its origins somewhere specific and then began to spread.  Every country has both taught, and learnt from, another.  In development, too, we may bemoan the use of one-size-fits-all models to local problems, but at the same time most of us would feel that countries should share their “best practices”.


OK, but shouldn’t African countries learn from each other rather than from foreign models halfway around the planet?

Perhaps, but it seems the Indian and especially the Chinese models hold more appeal.  Not a week goes by that a government minister or journalist—whether from Senegal or South Africa—isn’t quoted as saying that Africa wants to learn from the experiences of Asia.  No African country seems to inspire them quite as much at the moment, particularly now that China and India are becoming so economically active on the continent. 


Are African states strong enough to follow the Chinese model—and would it even be a good thing if they were? 

From what I’ve seen so far, no African states are strong enough to copy China in any narrow sense.  And that’s just as well, because a strict interpretation of the Chinese model would entail a lot of damage to democracy and a lot of upheaval.  But they can draw certain broader lessons:  the need for pragmatic, competent leadership, the importance of infrastructure and industry, and the wisdom of striking a balance between markets and the state.  They seem to be drawing an even more important lesson, which I’ll come to in a minute.


So what have you found, then? Do countries in Africa see China and India as models, and what are they most interested in copying?

I’ve got a lot of interviewing and other research left to go, so I can’t make any hard conclusions yet.  But so far, I’ve found that African leaders do want to copy aspects of China and India’s recent successes.  China’s a lot more popular, for a number of reasons: it’s investing a lot more in Africa, it’s conducting a major “Charm Offensive” that includes taking African officials and journalist on study trips to China, and it’s got a better track record on reducing poverty.  Some African leaders undoubtedly like the Chinese model because it allows them to cling to power for longer, with the added bonus of telling the West where it can go stick its Washington Consensus: Robert Mugabe' was quoted last year, for example, as saying that "China has been able to develop its economy without plundering other countries and the Chinese economic miracle is indeed a source of pride and inspiration".  Other leaders like the model because China is funding the very projects—dams, bridges, roads—that allow them to industrialize as China itself did two decades ago. 

But, perhaps unexpectedly, a lot of admirers of the Chinese model seem to like it for another reason:  it proves that the global economic and political order—in place for as long as they can remember—can be changed.  Most of us, whether we admit it or not, have become used to the idea that certain countries will always be poor, and that others will always be rich.  India challenges this idea, but China overturns it completely.  A Congolese journalist puts it this way: "Thanks to China, we know that nothing is frozen in the world as it currently is.  We know that the dice are not loaded nor the cards dealt so that the poor remain eternally poor and the rich perpetually rich".  Many in Africa look at China and feel that change is within the grasp of those willing to discard utopian ideologies and take their future into their own hands.  Problems may exist to hold Africa back from doing this—but the idea itself has a power no-one should underestimate. 

Photo credit: cc / flickr - World of Oddy

Category: Poverty | Tags:


  • Bart Knols on 30th May 2010:

    Again an insightful piece of excellent writing. Thanks, Elsje.

  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 30th May 2010:

    Thanks smile ALl three parts of this series have been really interesting.

  • Johan Knols on 31st May 2010:

    Hi Elsje,

    Compared to Europe and the U.S., China and India were seen as the underdog. People like underdogs and tend to support them. Could this be the reason that Africa looks in their direction?

  • Elsje Fourie on 31st May 2010:

    Thanks Bart, Daniel and Johan!  Yes, Johan, I think that’s a large part of it…and the ‘underdog’ label is certainly insulating China from a lot of criticism in Africa more generally.  But they are not just underdogs, they are underdogs who have ‘come out on top’.  “No-one is laughing at China now”, as a letter to a South African paper puts it.  Africa shares a common post-colonial identity with China and India, so it finds it easier to take lessons from countries that it feels have gone through the same problems and found a way out of them.

  • Clare Herbert on 31st May 2010:

    Enjoyed this.

  • Johan Knols on 01st June 2010:


    What you are saying is exactly what I meant. That is why I said ‘China and India WERE seen…’. Of course they are no longer the underdogs anymore.

  • Elsje Fourie on 01st June 2010:

    @ Clare - cheers! 
    @ Johan - glad we’re agreed, and thanks for the feedback grin

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