Lessons from China: The pros and cons of rapid development


The rapid economic development of countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda are well documented. Or, more accurately, the benefits of Africa’s economic surge are widely applauded but the potential downsides of growing too much, too quickly are rarely discussed.

Yet the downsides are there for everyone to see – not only in the African nations currently transforming themselves but also the recent history of other rising nations.

Singapore and South Korea are two of the finest economic success stories of the 20th century, but they’re not without compromise. Then we have China, one of the most influential economies in the world and now the most influential foreign investor in Africa.

Opinions on whether Chinese investment is good for Africa or not vary, but there’s no denying Africa’s path is hugely influenced by the Asian powerhouse. Already, many of the pros and cons of rapid development in Africa are there for everyone to see, even if they’re not always talked about.

However, there’s still time to learn positive lessons from China’s economic rise and avoid some of the negatives, before it’s too late.


The pros of rapid economic development

This is the easier argument to make because they’re the most widely talked about. Increased GDP, rising wages, improved infrastructure and economic independence are among the obvious advantages. Improved education and healthcare are major priorities, too, and some of Africa’s most promising countries are already showing signs of technology innovation – Rwanda being one example.

Africa can certainly learn from China in this regard. Chinese technology companies are establishing themselves as some of the best in the world. It has been a long journey for the country’s technology scene but firms like Huawei, Xiami and Tencent (WeChat) are becoming industry leaders.

China is also now the world biggest producer of aluminium and steel, causing the US a number of problems in the global market. Africa’s ability to make the most of its natural resources and industrial commodities will also be crucial to sustainable development.

We can’t forget about manufacturing either, which was a crucial part of China’s economic journey – and one Africa could learn from. Not so much the fake goods phenomenon, but the development of factories and manufacturing processes that so many countries have adopted after China.

All of these benefits are within Africa’s reach. The concern is the negative side-effect they might come with.


The cons of rapid development

The main concern with rapid development is a lack of sustainability. The quicker you build bridges, the faster they crumble may sound like a metaphor – but Chinese bridges built in Africa are literally collapsing before they’re finished.

The key for Africa is sustainable development. China’s rise to power has created a debt-to-GDP ratio of 200 percent and there’s constant talk of an asset bubble. Like many of Asia’s economies (and most Western ones for that matter), China is treading a fragile line between growth and economic collapse.

Such is the nature of rapid growth. You can’t make money without spending money, after all. The problem is these countries tend to spend more than they make and it’s the working/middle-class majority who pay the price when everything comes falling down.

That said, there wouldn’t be middle classes to begin with if it weren’t for economic development. And this is where things get more complex. Those who benefit and pay back into the system climb their way up the socioeconomic ladder while those who get left behind fall further into poverty. We know the average wages increase for people with a job but the price of food also continues to rise for those who don’t.

The rich-poor divide is an unfortunate side-effect that can be seen on the streets of sprouting cities. It comes with the smog of pollution, the traffic jams, rapidly growing populations and spread of unemployment as cities grow beyond their means.

Meanwhile, the tycoons who profit most from development in Africa sit comfortably, watching from afar. Their children go to international schools, enjoy the best private healthcare and spend most of their time breathing in the relatively clean air of more developed countries.

Essentially, the pros and cons of rapid development vary greatly depending on your position.


Featured image: By Andreas Habich – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28345841

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.