“Constructing Africa’s Future” symposium

January 18, 2018
By Elizabeth Losos and Lydia Olander
Image of people walking on railroad track


The symposium “Constructing Africa’s Future: The Environmental and Social Implications of Chinese-Financed Infrastructure in Africa” was held on January 18, 2018 with the goal of bringing together leading academics, journalists, policymakers, and NGO experts to discuss the environmental and social implications of Chinese-financed infrastructure in Africa and informing how to shape the new Duke/DKU initiative, “Duke/DKU Green Belt and Road Initiative.” The symposium was scheduled to take place over two days but, due to a large snowstorm, Duke was closed on the first day of the symposium and some of the speakers were not able to attend. The workshop was condensed to a small dinner, a half day session, and a working lunch. Despite the last minute changes, more than 50 students and staff attended and there was active participation from a wide range of speakers and attendees. This event was made possible by financial support from Duke University’s Africa Initiative and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and partnership with Duke Kunshan campus.

Full Report:

This event was designed to bring together leading academics, journalists, policymakers, and NGO experts to discuss the environmental and social implications of Chinese-financed infrastructure in Africa. The workshop will inform how Duke/DKU and partner institutions can contribute to infrastructure planning in Africa so as to optimize its impact on the environment and global health.

This event was made possible by financial support from Duke University’s Africa Initiative and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and partnership with Duke Kunshan campus. More than 50 people (faculty and students) attended the event. The revised agenda for Friday was as follows:

10 am Opening comments by Elizabeth Losos (Nicholas Institute)

10:10 am Guest panel moderated by Lydia Olander (Nicholas Institute)

Howard French, School of Journalism, Columbia University “From Going Out to One Belt One Road –Understanding China’s Africa Policies in a Global Perspective”(virtual participation because his flight was cancelled)

Michelle Lee, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University “Green and Blue Conservation Agendas alongside Chinese Development in Gabon.”

April Raphiou, International Communications Consultant “The Framing of Chinese Engagement in Kenya and Nigeria as Portrayed through Local Media”

Jackson Ewing, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “The Inconsistency of China’s Environmental Impacts in Africa”

Tao Hu, WWF China Program “Greening Infrastructure along the Belt and Road”

Jingjing Zhang, Visiting Scholar, Environmental Law Institute, Open Society Foundation Fellow “Chinese Overseas Investment: The Environmental and Social Impact and Legal Accountability”

12:00 pm Discussion with panelists moderated by Liz Losos

We asked the panelists and audience to consider three primary questions:

1. The Government of China has pledged that its Belt and Road Initiative should “promote ecological progress in conducting investment and trade, increase cooperation in conserving eco environment, protecting biodiversity, and tackling climate change, and join hands to make the Silk Road an environment friendly one.”[1] What is required from China to make the Green Belt and Road a reality?

2. It has been hypothesized that “...eastern paradigm projects are financed faster, while western paradigm projects are more bureaucratically tedious with delays caused by stringent social and environmental safeguards, layered and slower decision-making process, as well as a general lack of coordination between approval authorities and stakeholders.”[2] How can recipient countries safeguard against negative social and environmental outcomes while still enjoying the benefits from Chinese-financed infrastructure?

 3.  How do you think Duke (in partnership with other organizations and experts) could best support efforts by China and recipient countries to achieve more sustainable and healthy development?

Elizabeth Losos introduced the event by introducing our new initiative at Duke aimed at harnessing Duke’s expertise in the US and in their China campus (Duke Kunshan) to help China and host countries improve the environmental and social outcomes of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Howard French led off the panel discussion by describing how China began experimenting with economic reforms in the 80s and 90s by bringing in outside capital, expertise, and technology to launch businesses in China. While this was successful it was limited in its ability to employ enough of the Chinese population to sustain their full economy. So they began looking for opportunities to launch their own companies to bring their own capital, expertise, labor capacity, and technology to others outside China. They saw Africa as the opportunity to try this. China introduced its “Going Out” phase, encouraging its State-Owned Enterprises establish new companies in Africa. This has been successful in many ways and has led to the growth of China’s corporate sector and to the BRI which is an extension of this policy which is focused on exporting their excess capacity in many sectors. While there have been a number of failures in their first venture out to Africa from the perspective of both China and host countries, French thinks they have learned and will likely do better in the future.

Michelle Lee discussed the example of Chinese infrastructure expansion in Gabon. She noted that China is a prominent investor in many of Gabon’s sectors (fishing, infrastructure development, logging, etc..). However, given that Gabon is small and is not developing rapidly,there has been less need for China’s engagement. She described few examples like a large proposed Chinese mining development in the North and a large road project aloing the coast.

April Raphiou discussed the different approaches of the US and China in Africa and how they are portrayed in the media based on her research in Nigeria and Kenya. She noted that America tend to use more hard power –aid tied to requirements for government action, while China tends to use softer power, offering capital for various development opportunities with no significant strings attached. She found that the west had significant media infrastructure (press releases, new services) in Africa and that China has been building their own, but that African nations have yet to build one. As a result, news tends to come from either a Western (US) perspective or a Chinese perspective. It appears that both tend to have more positive than negative news stories.

Jackson Ewing offered some useful insights into the potential ills of the BRI that need to be addressed; extractive industries, large scale infrastructure (hydropower, roads, railways), long term impacts of unsustainable energy infrastructure (climate change, air quality, health), and large scale agriculture development (rice, meat). He discussed how both China and host countries are involved in determining the outcomes and thus there is huge variation on how projects turn out. He discussed a number of ideas for action that include engaging Chinese investors and their standards, engaging countries on their rules and leadership, and training and capacity building for host countries which he thought might be a particularly good fit for Duke.

Tao Hu noted that China tends to think about infrastructure support as the first pillar of economic development. He explained that clarification is needed about what is meant by green development. There are many different standards out there and different ones for investors and countries. He is therefore hosting a forum on environmental governance and standards (The Shanghai Forum, May 27)to which has invited Liz Losos. He says given China’s policy to follow host country rules, it is important to engage host countries in promoting green infrastructure options. He also notes that State Owned Enterprises tend to behave better overseas than private Chinese actors and companies because they are more closely watched and judged.

Our final speaker JingJing Zhang has engaged in an effort to understand how to best work with host countries in Africa to improve the BRI. She says that now if locals complain to a Chinese company about problems in their country, the official say ask your government they invited us here. Host countries often do not hold Chinese companies accountable. Bar should be raised in China and within host countries. Many host countries will need stronger governance for this to succeed.

Speakers had a strong interest in remaining in touch and partnering as Duke moves forward with its initiative.  View the video from the symposium

[1] "Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road." 2015. National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce of the People's Republic of China, with State Council authorization.
[2] Bernet, M.S. 2016.Eastern and Western Paradigms in Developing Economy Infrastructure Investment. Stanford Global Projects Center.