While we've been busy looking at noisier events elsewhere, a small boom has been taking place in the lands south of the Sahara. Still the poorest place in the world, the heart of Africa is nevertheless catching up fast this year, with huge improvements in infrastructure, industry and most importantly agriculture; it could soon become the world's major food producer.
We North Americans and Europeans haven't been paying much attention to this huge expansion for the simple reason that we've had little to do with it.
This week was a prime example. The jet traffic between Beijing and the capitals of sub-Saharan Africa these past few days has been tremendous. On Monday, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping finished a two-day visit to Botswana in which he signed financing deals worth millions in infrastructure and energy development. Two days earlier, he'd made major deals in oil-rich Angola. On Wednesday in Ethiopia, Chinese private and state investors opened a $27-million leather-goods factory that will employ 500 Ethiopians; the same investment fund is also building cement plants and an airport hotel nearby. On Thursday, Sudan, which imports 80 per cent of its food, announced plans to quintuple its current wheat cultivation with backing from Chinese and Persian Gulf investors, increasing its acres under cultivation by 25 per cent a year for a decade.
And this is not an atypical week. The Chinese claim to have more than $1.5-billion invested in Africa now, up from $210-million; they employ at least 300,000 Africans in their own countries (and, increasingly, import African workers to the cities of the Pearl River Delta) and have built 60,000 kilometres of roads and 3.5 million kilowatts worth of power stations there - far more than any other country. Last year, China replaced the United States as the largest trading partner of South Africa, the continent's biggest economy, and annual China-Africa trade topped $100-billion for the first time this year.
There are good reasons why African leaders are turning to China. The Chinese are often the only ones willing to pay for the stuff that Africans really need. Western aid spending has increasingly moved away from big infrastructure and industrial projects, or abandoned the continent more or less completely.
And "emerging market" investment funds, despite all their hype about seeking the best returns and untapped investments around the world, have never really gone near the world's largest investment opportunity in sub-Saharan Africa. Our capitalists are too timid to go there. And our investment strategies are rarely more than short-term: While transforming Africa's agriculture into a commercial success may be one of the biggest business stories of the century, Westerners are unwilling to tie up their money there for 20 years before seeing a good return. For China, with its huge current-account surpluses, this time scale is ideal.
And there's a huge need for investment. According to the World Bank, Africa will need $93-billion a year in infrastructure investments in roads, electricity and telecommunications through the next decade; at least $31-billion of this will have to come from outside Africa. A study this week concluded that Africa could become a larger producer of rice than all of Asia - at a time when the world desperately needs more food output - with the right investments.
If China and other non-democratic states are left to fill this huge investment gap, it could come at a political cost. This week, we saw a warning written by Medard Mulangala Lwakabwanga, an MP from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who is watching his government turn to China for investment - in large part because they see Western countries as more interested in war-crimes tribunals and truth and reconciliation commissions than in building road links and irrigation networks. The Chinese don't care if Congo's government contains war criminals.
"China does not call on anyone to be sent to The Hague - it is not a signatory to the ICC treaty," Mr. Lwakabwanga wrote. "Nor does it call on African nations to respect international conventions on corporate contracts, rights for workers, defend free speech or hold free and fair elections. So many African nations now have a choice: Why listen to the West, with its rules and regulations and demands, if you don't have to?"
Mr. Lwakabwanga, like many freedom-seeking Africans, does not want growth at the price of tyranny. "The West can raise its game in the continent," he writes, "meet the Chinese challenge and help to build a more transparent and content Africa." If we want to do good on the continent, we're going to have to start doing more business.
On Dec. 1, Doug Saunders will be participating in a panel discussion at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum on foreign investment in Africa.