simon zadek

China-Africa’s Lock-Step Opportunity

W. H. Auden, in his missive to love, As I Walked Out One Evening, allows one of his poetic lovers to express undying love to the other in the following words:

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street.

On that basis, of course, love may indeed have an end-date. China and Africa may not have physically merged, but their combined 2.3 billion soul economies are increasingly in lock step, as the side graph depicts.

The implications of the Chinese-African engagement is the topic of rich and varied debate, toning from the depths of depair for China’s willingness to work with the ‘worst of the worst’ in accessing much-needed natural resources, to the heights of delight for the investment and growth that China’s attentions have brought an often beleagured continent, and the political choice that has opened up to Africa in being able to snub its nose at its erstwhile colonists from Europe and North America.

On 21-22 May 2010, an unusual event took place in Beijing to discuss this very topic. Arrayed around the room were an impressive number of Chinese government officials, representatives from Western and some African Governments, Chinese, African and Western multinationals, standards organisations, and academics, about 100 all told.

Debated was the place of corporate responsibility in African development, a sensitive topic and rarely before discussed in the Beijing limelight alongside foreigners such as those in the room, including me as hosting moderator of the two day session. Not surprisingly, it had taken approaching two years to get into this particular room, largely time spent creating trust in the process and the players, and conviction that this event (and the stuff around it) would make a positive contribution to progressing associated international disputes about Chinese practices in Africa, and build relationships to accelerate good practice on the ground.

This week, in London at the UK Government’s Deaprtment for Economic Development, I presented the physical output from the event, a Harvard-published paper entitled Corporate Responsibility in African Development: Insights from an emerging dialogue.

Bottom line set out in the London presentation is that Chinese companies in Africa are in one sense struggling up the same learning curve as Western companies have over the last couple of decades, and now some are excellent, and like their Western counterparts many remain poor in dealing with social and environmental issues. On the other hand, the accountability drivers for Chinese companies are different in crucial aspects. They are in large part less responsive to civil society pressures, especially from Western campaigners, and yet tend to be far more responsive to signals from their home government, the Chinese state. This obvious but crucial fact points towards a greater engagement of the Chinese Government in the international affairs of Chinese companies, something that is of growing interest and likelihood as China seeks to overcome distrust towards their growing overseas investments.

The Beijing Dialogue and associated publication is one of a series of policy research interventions on the same topic in which i have been involved in China over the last two years, some now past and many more on-going. At stake is whether and how China shifts from being a reluctant ‘market-taker’ in the area of sustainability standards to being a forceful ‘market-maker’. This is new territory for us all, most of all the guardians of our current legacy of such standards, ranging from the Forest Stewardship Council to the Extractice Industry Transparency Initiative (many of which were at the Beijing Dialogue trying to understand exactly these aspects of their changing world, risks and opportunities).

Another peice I recently published on this topic is entitled “Emerging Nations and Sustainability – Chimera or Leadership?”, which explores more broadly if and if so how emerging nations might take leadership in the coming decades in advancing the sustainability agenda.

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    category: China, Corporate Responsibility, CSR


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