The Broker Online

Emerged Powers: How much do we know?

Author: Peter Konijn
Peter Konijn is director of Knowing Emerging Powers.

Big is beautiful: Megadams, African water security, and China’s role in the global political economy’ is the title of a post that recently appeared on the blog of the Oxford University China Africa Network. According to the author dr. Harry Verhoeven, hundreds of new megadams are being constructed all over the world, and most of them by China, India and Brazil, the top three dam builders in the world. China alone is planning and constructing more than 100 dams in half of all African countries, including Sudan, Ethiopia and Gabon. The article quickly prompted a critical reaction from the well-known China-in-Africa scholar Deborah Brautigam on her blog: ‘Is China really building 100 dams in Africa?’. She very much doubts it.

A 2010 report by International Rivers lists (only) 25 dam projects in Africa with Chinese involvement. On looking into the 25 dam projects Brautigam found that most of them were either old (completed before 1996) repairs or expansions of existing dams, or still in the pipeline. She counted only 5 dam projects with Chinese involvement that were actually under construction or recently completed.

The controversy between Verhoeven and Brautigam exemplifies many of the characteristics of the current debate on the role of emerged powers in global development. First, there is a huge lack of reliable data. Who is right: Verhoeven or Brautigam? How many dams have been built by Chinese companies in Africa? The truth is: we don’t know, because there are no reliable data. The same goes for investments and development aid. The estimates of Africa’s share of overall Chinese foreign direct investment vary widely between 4% and 17%, while estimates of Brazilian development assistance vary between $ 500 million and $ 4 billion. Take your pick.

Secondly there is a similar lack of nuance in the debate on emerged powers especially in relation to China. Many contributions to the debate are filled with sweeping statements. Read Dambisa Moyo’s ‘Winner take all’: China is way out in front of the global scramble for natural resources. Moyo writes that, unlike China, the West is ill prepared to deal with commodity shortages over the next two decades. This challenge goes beyond our living standards to a fight about life or death. No less. Thirdly, change is happening now and is moving fast. Who would have guessed a major comeback of big dams in the 21st century, after they were discredited by forced displacements, corruption scandals and massive environmental damage and subsequent withdrawal of Western funding just two decades ago?

But above all it shows just how fascinating the debate on emerged powers in global development is. The global power shift from the West to ‘the Rest’ challenges many of the common assumptions that have dominated thinking on development and international cooperation for a long time.

In the words of Chris Alden: “I think the first and most important impact China has had is in breaking the Western donor cartel. This monopoly of ideas that had been produced out of the World Bank or adhered to by the OECD had patently brought limited results in development terms”. In the same vein, Jonathan Glennie suggests that Western donors can learn a lot from Brazil’s new brand of development aid. Brazil exports its success to other developing countries based on the concept of South-South cooperation. The government of India recently established its own ‘aid’ agency: the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) to guide and manage its rapidly increasing development assistance.The monopoly of ideas produced by the West is over, South South cooperation is thriving. Power relations are shifting. It challenges everyones perspectives development and international cooperation, both in The West as in East and South.

Author: Peter Konijn

About the author

Peter Konijn is director of Knowing Emerging Powers.

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