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How to Become an Empire

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

by Dr Eric Boa

Chinese Woman Agrochemicals Company, Kumasi, Ghana

China’s journey from poor and powerless to rich and regal has been swift and dramatic. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a.k.a. the Road to Everywhere, is the most obvious modern example of growing economic and political might, but there are many other outstanding achievements to celebrate. Perhaps the most stunning is the biggest ever reduction in poverty, with hundreds of millions of people better off in ways unimaginable before China began its ascent in the late 1980s.

Also take into consideration the world’s most impressive network of high-speed railways, now extending over 40,000 km (with more to come) and a burgeoning number of metropolises. There are now at least twenty cities with over ten million people. Ambition is expanding on all fronts, as China becomes more assertive in how it wants others to see it. You don’t become rich by yourself, however, and how other countries perceive China will depend on more than the promise of better transport networks, and increased trade and investment.

There is much more to that familiar quest: How to Become an Empire. Ask us Brits, the Romans, Ottomans and other sundry empire-builders who have previously ruled the roost over large areas and multiple domains. We Brits also built roads and railways and expanded commerce and cities. We created order and stability but also sowed discord, inequity and resentment. Long after their empires collapsed, colonisers continue to pay for the deprivations that rampant economic adventurism helped create. It is a painful process but, on a more positive note, with lessons learned that might help new empires avoid the perils of the past.

I offer advice with some hesitation and not a few caveats. Although I have worked in many countries over many years, I have but a glancing understanding of politics and history. Snippets of curious information – for example, that the Polish communities of Haiti, are descended from mercenaries hired to suppress the first successful revolt against France, the coloniser – are about the depth of my knowledge. My main insights come from working amongst local people and the value of development projects aimed at helping them. Even so, I am still a “development tourist”, a term devised by Robert Chambers, a keen analyst of donors and projects, to describe the inevitable short periods that development practitioners spend in the Global South.

My concern is less about the effectiveness of international development, at least for now. This is an important but complex topic. I’d like to focus instead on the need for rich countries to help those less fortunate than themselves. That lack of fortune is, of course, closely related to some countries being richer than others. Read The Seeds of Change by Harold Hobhouse to learn more about the roles of crops such as sugar- cane, coffee and cocoa in creating the rich nations of the Global North. Égalité, liberté et fraternité, the noble goals of the French Revolution, did not apply to Haiti. It’s a familiar theme for empires: some people are more equal than others.

When I started working in Bangladesh in the 1980s, as a Technical Cooperation Officer for the UK’s Overseas Development Administration, there was an underlying sense of doing good. As I trudged from one bamboo plot to the next, over ferry and pitted roads (no BRI then), slowly tracking the advance of a new disease, it was difficult to see exactly how I was alleviating poverty. But, as I bounced from one project to the next, I began to perceive a wider plan and an evolving framework for what we now call Sustainable Development.

The Millennium Development Goals emerged in the early 2000s through a global consensus moderated by the UN. They were updated a few years ago to the more elaborate Sustainable Development Goals. It’s easy to dismiss these as patronising gobbledygook, airy promises inflated by the egos of donors and signifying not a lot. Yet behind the lofty rhetoric there are continuing efforts to build the capacity for national scientists, healthcare professionals and farmers to find out what works best for their country.

There have been dramatic steps to use the lessons of past projects to design better ones. I should know. I’ve sat through more workshops and discussions than Boris Johnson has attended “work-events”. The results are sometimes messy and incomplete. Yet I can confirm the sincerity of those trying hard to hear the voices of the ignored, hopefully following the advice of E F Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful: “to find out what people do and help them do it better”.

What has all of this to do with The Road to Everywhere and China? A sole focus on trade and political power is not good for business. There are many reasons for funding international development programmes, some more noble than others. Feeling compassion for the less well-off is preferable to burnishing your own self-image. Ultimately, I’m less concerned about motives and more about the money that rich nations provide.

It would be nice if China copied the UK Labour Government, who in 1997 created a dynamic, forward-looking international development programme, yet this is unrealistic. International development is not a vote-winner. Even in countries with a long tradition in international development, it’s easy to reverse long-established, bi-partisan policies, as the UK Conservative government recently did by abolishing the Department for International Development and severely cutting the aid budget. Yet I’m also optimistic that citizens in rich countries care about the welfare and well-being of the poor. Donate to a good cause. If you’re super-rich and have turned a compassionate corner (or just feel guilty), you can even create your own foundation. That’s what Bill and Melinda Gates did, following in the footsteps of Ford, Wellcome, MacArthur and other wealthy individuals.

China already contributes to multilateral programmes, as well as to global bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO). The head of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) is Chinese and I’m aware of at least one plant health programme they’ve funded linked to the BRI. Small steps in the right direction. Yet I struggle to recall more substantial development programs funded by China, similar to those funded by USAID, for example, or other prominent bilateral donors.

USAID-funded Sex Education programme, Fort Portal, Uganda

A country doesn’t need a huge and burdensome administration to manage projects – though I’m tempted to say this is inevitable. Nor do projects need to be complicated to have a positive and long-lasting impact. I worked on a bamboo management project in Ethiopia over twenty years ago, funded by German aid. It was a pilot effort to help local communities sustain a major yet neglected natural resource. During my stay I visited bamboo furniture makers in Addis Ababa. They’d been originally trained by Chinese craftsmen in the 1980s, part of showing socialist solidarity with the ruling Marxist Dergue (Amharic for ‘committee’). I was initially dismissive of the training and lack of a proper project plan, yet , as you can see below, fifteen years later the shops were still there, and doing good business.

Save Generation Association staff, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

This is, now I think of it, a good example of bamboo diplomacy, winning hearts and minds, showing that you’re the good guys, concerned about the welfare of people. International development can be a powerful persuader of your good intentions. More please, China.



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