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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View:China’s role in Sierra Leone deserves more scrutiny, less blind praise

CHETANYA

CHETANYA

It seems like every day the local Sierra Leone newspapers carry a story about another promise of Chinese aid or investment, another meeting in which Sierra Leonean and Chinese officials proclaim the warm, eternal friendship between the two countries.
This Friday marks the 45th anniversary of China and Sierra Leone’s friendship  or at least, its diplomatic relationship. There’s been a lot of positive words on this relationship in local newspapers lately, but so far coverage seems to be light on skepticism and criticism.
It’s undeniable that many of China’s investments have been good for Sierra Leone. China has helped build bridges, a dam, a stadium, roads, buildings and more. It’s bankrolled scholarships, aid for medicine, food, education and more. Not to mention, there are plans for a new railway and airport, ambitious projects that would surely do much to improve Sierra Leone’s development as a modern nation.
But I’m skeptical it’s really as simple as that. To start with, talk of China as Sierra Leone’s “friend” is a personification that simplifies the relationship. I know this is a common way to describe diplomatic relationships, and it frankly annoys me whenever it’s used this way, because friendship is not the right way to describe the relationships between nations, and certainly not that between China and Sierra Leone. China and Sierra Leone are more like business partners. I think there should be more honesty about this, and less fawning praise. There are many important ways in which a business partnership is different from a friendship.
True friends try to help each other with their real problems, not just the ones they’re willing to publicly acknowledge. China seems indifferent about helping improve key problems in Sierra Leone, like corruption, or helping strengthen Sierra Leone’s democracy.
According to MC Bah writing in the Standard Times Press Newspaper online, “China, unlike Sierra Leone’s traditional donors like Britain and the EU, have no political interest in helping Sierra Leone build its fragile democratic institutions or promoting the practices of good governance.”
I think the UN and United States policies of aid and development in Sierra Leone deserve just as much scrutiny, of course, as do the aid and investment policies of any country or international organization. The track record of the UN and the United States are far from perfect, and their motives are of course not necessarily purely altruistic. And I don’t deny that the United States has a long history of amoral exploitation of other nations’ wealth, just like China.
But the fact is, China isn’t even trying to promote democracy and fight corruption in Sierra Leone, and it could and should be doing more. The money it pumps in Sierra Leone will have a lot less impact on the average Sierra Leonean if it’s siphoned away by corrupt officials.
For its part, the Sierra Leone government should put tighter regulations in place so that China’s investments benefit all Sierra Leoneans. The basic problem with China’s investments, unlike other aid, is that they are not intended to better the country as a whole as much as they are to make money. These two goals don’t always align.
And it seems in some cases, Sierra Leone is too forgiving of its trading partner. A 2013 policy briefing from the South African Institute of International Affairs by Simone Datzberger points out that Sierra Leone paid $4.5 million USD per kilometer of the Wilkinson Road to Chinese contractors. This is 18 times the average international price of $250,000 per kilometer. Surely there are ways that money could have been better spent.
As that paper argues, China’s larger goal in Sierra Leone is tapping into the country’s rich natural resources. The donations, aid and corporate social responsibility should be seen more as business tactics than friendship.
As Bah puts it, “This obsession to acquire wealth from state resources is abominable and immoral. It should not be the big elephant in the room when trade deals and infrastructural projects are signed at the red carpet ballroom of Beijing. Sierra Leoneans in the streets want to see changes that make their lives better and prosperous  not only politicians and their families.”

*Chetanya Robinson is a journalism intern from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the 7th intern in as many years in an internship program with Awoko Newspaper
Friday July 29, 2016

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