Jean-Michel Severino, former head of the Agence Française de Développement and advisor to newly elected French president, François Hollande, talks about Africa’s industrialisation process and China’s impact on the continent’s infrastructure development.
Wages in China are rising, and Africa wants to get on the manufacturing ladder: are we at a turning point?
Jean-Michel Severino: There is the beginning of an industrialisation process in Africa, targeting worldwide markets, but it’s at an early stage. It’s still unclear whether the wage inflation in China is going to change that trend, because the actual real costs of manufacturing in Africa are high. Though wages are very low, infrastructure is lacking and productivity is relatively low, so it’s hard for African industries to compete. But African domestic markets are growing very fast, and many light industries are now targeting these domestic markets rather than export markets, and this is a real opportunity.
With that in mind, what should France’s aid priorities be?
Infrastructure, education, the private sector. Growth, growth, growth. The French aid system has to continue to focus on infrastructure, which really is the missing element in Africa, and also trying to increase Africa’s skills base, which is not only about primary and secondary schools but more and more about higher and professional education. We will need to strengthen support to the African private sector, in a very integrated way.
Infrastructure tops that list. Would it be fair to say the Chinese have done more for African infrastructure than Western donors like France in recent years?
No I don’t think it’s true; you have to consider that the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, the European Commission but also the Agence Française de Développement, where I have worked for many years, have dedicated vast amounts of money to infrastructure. It’s very unfair to say that international donors have suddenly discovered the importance of infrastructure just because of the Chinese.
On the other hand, the bulk of China’s development cooperation has focused on infrastructure, which is great, with some caveats of course about the way this has been done. And they are raising the importance of infrastructure in the international policy dialogue.