A New Silk Road

The sun radiated off the glistening windows of the towering skyscrapers. Workers went about their day wearing expensive suits, making important phone calls, and handing out their business cards. As I wandered through the sweltering heat of the Dar es Salaam business district, Tanzania, I was stunned by the cosmopolitan and commerce-focused approach that I encountered at what might be called the economic heartbeat of East Africa. The infrastructure was remarkable, and the people I met were industry-minded and results-oriented. It’s fair to say that I was surprised, and my own biases, which painted the region as a macroeconomic failure, were exposed.

My experiences in Tanzania and Kenya introduced me to the incredible potential of Sub-Saharan Africa. An impressive entrepreneurial spirit is exhibited not just in the shiny business district but also in the rural and provincial local markets. What I witnessed first-hand is corroborated by recent news of the region’s rapid technological and infrastructural advancements. For instance, Tanzania secured an orbital slot for its first satellite in 2023, Kenya plans to invest in tax-free industrial parks in every county, and Uganda has increased its adoption of fibre optic cable, enabling growth in its information and communication technology (ICT) sector.

The region has great macroeconomic potential and all the factors necessary for long-term growth. There is an abundance of natural resources, and lithium, cobalt, and tantalum are rife. These are vital assets to possess as demand in global technology markets grows ever-rapidly. We can also take into account the factor of demographics. The region is not facing the issue of population decline, and a youthful and growing population is another economic asset. All of these factors, along with Africa’s surprisingly low levels of debt, provide the right macroeconomic conditions for economic growth. Yet, while the region has seen some promising growth, political instability has dampened such growth from reaching extraordinary levels. Political instability creates environments of uncertainty, leading to a lack of confidence for investors, consumers, and potential entrepreneurs. If political reform does not come from within Africa, we must look to the possibility of an external influence.

The role of China cannot be understated in Africa’s development story. China’s 1999 ‘Go out’ strategy has encouraged overseas investment, and numerous financial collaboration projects have solidified China’s presence in the region. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from China to Africa has increased dramatically, from US$75 million in 2003 to US$5 billion in 2021. China also guaranteed a US$100 million increase in military aid for the African Union in 2017. Chinese diplomatic links to the region have strengthened; the Chinese National People’s Congress now boasts formal relations with 35 African parliaments.

This dominance from China can be found predominantly in the Sub-Saharan states of Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Equatorial Guinea; these are nations that have welcomed Chinese-sponsored infrastructure, with a total investment of US$155 billion over the last 20 years. My time in Kenya and Tanzania  confirmed this: in Dar Es Salaam, several Chinese firms had set up commercial and logistics centres; in Nairobi, a multitude of students were preparing to study undergraduate and master’s degrees at universities in China, often funded by scholarships and grants. In both cities, locals seemed to view the colossal investment from China favourably. It doesn’t take much to see that China has successfully taken a firm financial grip on Africa.

Comparatively, Western states seem to have abandoned their efforts in the region. Western media presence in Africa has somewhat declined, replaced partly by Chinese state-owned media. UK FDI in Sub-Saharan Africa only increased by £2 billion from 2008-2018, coinciding with a flatline in UK trade and investment in the region. Most notably, since 2008, China has consistently led the US as Sub-Saharan Africa’s primary trading partner.

This is problematic. We have noted the region’s enormous capacity for economic growth. Nonetheless, it is widely understood that the biggest factor hindering it is political instability. While we may commend China for its various infrastructural investments, only Western liberalism can help lift these countries over the economic roadblocks of political corruption, fiscal mismanagement, and statism. Western policymakers need to adopt a new strategy towards Sub-Saharan Africa, one that promotes financial and cultural investment and fosters liberalism, democracy, tolerance, and other underlying values that form contemporary Western society. This is not a hawkish position to hold. On the contrary, we can support these nations’ growth while acknowledging their indisputable right to autonomy and self-determination.

It is time for an outward-looking foreign policy towards Sub-Saharan Africa, with the aim of international cooperation and a compassionate effort to empower the developing world. A good starting point would be reversing the 2020 UK cut in foreign aid from 0.5% of GNI to the previous level of 0.7%. Additionally, I would welcome a coalition of NATO states coming together to offer a restructuring programme that encourages private investment, combatting China’s dubious endeavours within the region.

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.