Written by Kenneth King.

President Xi Jinping’s opening speech to the FOCAC Summit of December 2015 in Johannesburg had ‘five major pillars’, ‘three bottleneck issues’, and ‘ten cooperation plans’. Human resources development (HRD) with Africa is a part of each of these perspectives, as it has been in all the previous five FOCAC triennial events. But, significantly, it was the ‘lack of professional and skilled personnel’ that was claimed to be one of the three bottlenecks ‘holding back Africa’s development’ (Xi).

There was an additional substantive dimension to the Johannesburg Summit; it was the occasion for launching China’s second Africa policy paper. This closely paralleled the earlier version of China’s African policy in 2006. Like 2006, the new policy had a small sub-section on ‘Expanding cooperation in education and human resources development’. It mentioned in particular the scaling up of cooperation in teacher training and vocational education.

Traditionally, it is the FOCAC Action Plan that carries the most detail on the Chinese pledges to Africa, and it is noticeable that the basic structure of the Johannesburg Action Plan is not very different from the previous Beijing Action Plan of 2012. There are of course a very large number of areas covered in the Johannesburg Action Plan in the fields of political, economic, social, cultural, and even security cooperation. Our focus here is primarily with the human resource development dimension of the Plan.

Historically, China’s cooperation with Africa has never focused narrowly on schools or on formal education, even if two earlier FOCACs have supported the development of a small number of schools (total 150).1 Instead, the support to HRD in FOCAC VI can be found under very many different titles, including capacity building, training opportunities, scholarships, cultural partnerships, mutual learning, knowledge sharing, and people-to-people exchanges. The overall focus remains higher education.

Education and HRD are principally treated together under ‘Social development cooperation’ along with medical care and public health, and other issues, but this should not be regarded as the only focus on capacity building in the Action Plan; many different dimensions of training and capacity development are also covered under the various sections of ‘Economic cooperation’ such as agriculture, industry, infrastructure, information, energy, tourism, investment, and trade. In these economic investments, there is constant reference in the text to human capacity development, technology transfer and skills training. Beyond this, there are institutional development pledges – including the building of five ‘transportation universities’ and a ‘China-Africa Aviation School’.

Specifically, under the section on ‘Social development cooperation’ are some of the largest and most ambitious training numbers FOCAC has seen so far. Again, these pledges are not restricted to the sub-section termed ‘Education and human resources development’, but there are major training initiatives in the sub-section on ‘Medical care and public health’, including the training of doctors, nurses, public health workers and administrative personnel from African countries, as well as the building of an African Union Disease Control Centre and regional medical research centres.

Similarly under the ‘Exchanges of experience on poverty eradication strategies’, China will provide degree programmes on poverty eradication, and will help to train specialized personnel in this field. Equally, under the sub-section on ‘Science and technology cooperation and knowledge sharing’, there are a whole series of joint building projects for research and demonstration, as well as plans for sending ‘outstanding African youths and technical personnel to participate in exchanges to and training in Africa’.

Specifically under the section ‘Education and human resources development’, China firstly pledges to provide some 32,000 government scholarships to Africa. This is almost twice as many as the 18,000 offered in the previous FOCAC V of 2012.

Given the alleged bottleneck on skills development in Africa, it is noticeable that China intends to renovate as well as build more vocational and technical training facilities in Africa, including an unspecified number of regional vocational education centres. Intriguingly, the provision of ‘colleges for capacity building in Africa’ is mentioned, though nothing more is said about these.

Beyond this, there is the promise of training no less than 200,000 local technical and vocational personnel, and of providing 40,000 training opportunities for African personnel in China. We must assume that this latter figure of 40,000 is for short-term training of some 2-3 weeks of the kind that has been offered traditionally through the FOCAC HRD process. This too is much larger than the 30,000 provided through the previous FOCAC V.

Still under Education and HRD, there is a continuation of China’s support to the UNESCO-China Funds-In-Trust which had been running at US$ 2 million annually in FOCAC V. There is also a promise of more support to African countries wishing to establish Confucius Institutes and Classrooms. Equally, at the university level, there is financial encouragement to African universities to establish China research centres ‘and vice versa’. Presumably these last three words are meant to encourage Chinese universities to open more African research centres.

Under the separate section termed ‘Cultural cooperation and people-to-people exchanges’, there are a whole series of proposals covering culture, media, academia, think tanks, youth, volunteers, women, trade unions and NGOs. It is noticeable that the agreements proposed here are mainly (21 of them) prefaced by the term ‘The two sides…’; only six are prefaced by ‘The Chinese side…’. This suggests that there is more of a symmetrical, two-way set of proposals in this key section of the Action Plan. China does, however, plan to build five more cultural centres in Africa, but parallel African centres in China are also encouraged.

China is very aware of the negative way in which its presence and activities in Africa are often portrayed by much of the Western media. It is suggestive, therefore, that China is offering to train no less than 1000 African media personnel annually. It is also planning to run ‘training and capacity building for African countries’ news officials and reporters’.

Still under ‘people-to-people exchanges’, there is the planned continuation of cooperation between think tanks and academia on both sides, with encouragement to do more research, and invite African scholars to China.

Youth exchanges are a further dimension of collaboration, with no less than 500 going annually for study trips from Africa to China. From the Chinese side, volunteers are also mentioned as continuing, but no numbers are given.

Review of these FOCAC multi-dimensional HRD pledges

A numbers game?

The FOCAC process has always paid a good deal of attention to the sheer numbers promised, as well as to delivery on the pledges. FOCAC VI is no different. This is the first time that there has been a reference to the training of 200,000 personnel, locally in Africa, in skills development. But in almost every section of the Action Plan from Energy, Oceans, Tourism, and Trade, to Agriculture, Medicine, Science &Technology, and Security, there is provision for training and capacity building. The front-line numbers, however, remain those for scholarships to China, 32,000; and short-term training in China: 40,000.

Institutional developments in Africa

FOCAC VI has the first Action Plan to focus so heavily on building institutional capacity. Apart from the five ‘transportation universities’, there are five Chinese cultural centres, and encouragement to develop Chinese research centres at university level. We have already mentioned the Aviation School, the Disease Control Centre, and medical research centres. There are also the national and regional technical and vocational education centres, and the China-Africa Joint Research Centre concerned with environmental protection, to mention just a few.

The question of location

With the promise of so many new institutions offered to Africa, a key question remains: who decides on the location? Historically, as in the China-Africa friendship schools, and the 20 hospitals in 2006, it was China’s choice. However, it will be interesting to see whether, like India in its offers of institutions to Africa, China leaves the decision with the African Union.2 This is surely going to be true of the African Union Disease Control Centre, but it may also be the case for the regional vocational education and medical research centres.

Chinese expertise in Africa

Even though it is the figures for training and scholarships in China that will get the headlines, the interesting fact is that some measure of skills training, capacity building or technology transfer within Africa is referred to in almost every section and sub-section of the Action Plan. In effect, this translates into a whole series of initiatives in which Chinese expertise is made available to Africa, whether in medical teams, ‘senior government experts or advisors’, ‘30 teams of agricultural experts’, or in the training of the 200,000 mentioned under its industrialization plans.

More research needed?

Researchers are tempted to end any writing with the comment that more research is needed. There are indeed some intriguing promises to be analysed further from the Action Plan, notably the ‘colleges for capacity building’, the ‘transportation universities’, and the ‘South-South Cooperation and Development Institute’. Some of the wider ‘Follow-up actions’ to each FOCAC conference are routinely reported on the FOCAC site. But it would of course be a major challenge to track at the country level the implementation of such a multiplicity and variety of China-Africa HRD and other sectoral commitments. This is in part the work of the Chinese Follow-up Committee.3

Kenneth King is a Professor Emeritus in the School of Social and Political Studies and in the School of Education in Edinburgh University. He is also the Editor of NORRAG News. Image credit: CC by GovernmentZA/Flickr.

1 For all the past FOCAC conferences, see http://www.focac.org/eng/
2 See King, 2013.
3 See King for further discussion of the FOCAC promises and their implementation

Further reading. King, K. 2013. China’s aid and soft power in Africa: The case of education and training (James Currey, Woodbridge, UK)