The Chinese Lion

Kenya does not need development through goodwill, it needs development through investment.  And they are getting it, but not without its own set of problems.  This investment is coming from the Chinese.  The Chinese government is investing millions (if not billions?) of dollars into Kenya, and Kenya is paying the Chinese government as well.  Trade figures between the two are seeing double digit growth.  China is developing the infrastructure of the nation, building roads, and stabilizing the power Grid.  They are building stadiums and medical centers and rice-fields.  They are doing the heavy lifting that Kenya seems unable to do.  If this seems insulting, I will be fair to everyone: the US cannot do its own heavy lifting anymore either:  Europeans are helping build our power plants and rebuild our road infrastructure.

Why are the Chinese investing so much?  Because of what I would call a difference in goals between the Chinese and the West when it comes to development.  I will safely say that most Western development organizations want to be culturally sensitive and allow Kenyans to catch up to, “modern times,” while at the same time figure out how all of this modernity fits into their own culture, handing over the reigns of cultural preservation to the Kenyans themselves.  This means that many Western developers focus on low-cultural-impact goodwill projects, such as increasing food production (or just handing out the food…) and developing local-level income generating activities.

The Chinese have a different goal.  They seem to realize that Kenyans are people who are well aware of what the world has and that they want it now.  Why wait 50 years for a country to develop before you sell finished goods if you can produce those goods for low enough costs that vast majorities of people can buy them today.  Of course, these are lower quality goods, but over time the Kenyan government will implement its own projects that will slowly increase the quality of life of its own people.  The Chinese are patient, and know that true economic revolutions take time (is their’s over yet?!), but they also know they can make bank here with strategically-marketed, low-cost, manufactured commodities: toothbrushes, basins, mobile phones (yes, a commodity here), etc.

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2 responses to “The Chinese Lion

  1. This is interesting.

    Much of the western world was, and continues to be criticized if it partakes in “shock” development. Instant modernization (or to the anti-colonialists: westernization) has always seemed so negative to me because there has been so much effort to resist it. It is taught to be sensitive to the needs of the developing world in a way that seems to inspire independent economic and industrial growth as opposed to selling pre-packaged modernization.

    However, such a process is slow and frustrating. Not only for the governments facilitating aid, but especially for the recipient governments watching other economies skyrocket.

    Do you think that it may be “acceptable” to introduce this shock development to developing countries when it is another non-western nation implementing the process? Is it really highlighting a continuation of anti-colonial sentiment?

  2. I appreciate your expanded insights into some of the matters I only briefly touched upon. I also like the term, “shock development.”

    The first thing I think everyone needs to agree on is that very rarely is there a single, perfect way to help a nation develop. Do too little and you are seen as uncaring. Do too much and you are seen as inappropriately influencing a culture. Anywhere in between these two extremes, and there is bound to be one project or another that cries for attention and when they do not receive that attention, they call a development-foul.

    The only way out of this mess is to potentially set some internationally agreed upon, ultimately arbitrary, standard at which point more traditional (as in, last-two-decades-style) development work can cease and an economy can be exposed to what you call shock development.

    Yet even that is flawed because it will ultimately enforce standards on developing-nation cultures that have maybe only been influenced by the more dominant Western culture. What markers would be used to indicate a culture or society is prepared for shock development? Which Western culture out there can say that they themselves have actually attained those levels themselves? I know of plenty of cases of murder, rape, domestic abuse, etc in the United States, yet we are all allowed to have automobiles, high speed Internet and in general high standards of living. Ultimately any metric we use will be flawed in both its application to developing nations as well as when it is applied to countries we consider developed. How much grey area do we allowed to exist before the shock development kicks in?

    Aggressive profit-oriented capitalism has its own metrics based simply on supply and demand. It is culture-agnostic, or rather, it may be more in tuned to what culture really is than any other arbitrary metric we could create. We always talk about letting the people of the developing nation choose what they want for themselves, and so I say again, if they choose they want to improve their lifestyles by being able to purchase finished goods, then who are we to tell them that is not their culture. Are we to tell them that they are being clueless, that they are blinded to the long-term impact upon a society if development were to occur this way? Do we actually have any proof ourselves of the true impact of this shock development? As far as I know, Kenya is in the first generation of post-colonial nations to be the attention of development agencies worldwide, and the job here isn’t done, so how do we know what the end result will be? We ourselves don’t have proof that what we are doing is better than what Chinese importers are doing.

    Some of the largest cultural transformations, and developments we have seen in modern times were those that aggressively adopted Western-style ideals when and where they needed them. Look at early 20th-century Japan and its Western-style industrialization. Was that not a shock development? Yet Japanese culture is still alive, vibrant, rich. Singapore, the darling Asian Tiger economy, implemented many aspects of Western style business culture while retaining that which they value in other areas of life. These countries that successfully develop economically without the mass help of a bunch of twenty-somethings, wandering-through-life, professional adults from other countries, demonstrate that culture and society can develop mutually with economies if under proper governance when exposed to the global economy.

    With all of this, I guess my short answer is that Western-style goodwill development treats culture as if it were some infant that needs constant protection and we get frustrated when the baby tries to grow up so we intentionally stunt its growth (this is not an accusation that NGOs want to keep themselves in work, a point I would argue otherwise in fact). In reality, culture is what the people want it to be. It is a survival of the fittest, where particular aspects of a given culture strive for the allegiance of its people. Those aspects that gain enough support continue on into the next generation of economic growth and internationalization of the nation. Those that do not fall to the wayside. Last I heard we don’t have witch-trials anymore in my native New England. Is anyone sad that cultural aspect lost out? To a certain degree shock development should be used much more, as long as proper governance is used to prevent it from becoming shock exploitation.