Special Economic Zones in Africa: What Lessons from China?

ChinafriqueThe government of Ethiopia announced earlier this month that the long-awaited and carefully planned Bole-Lemi Industrial zone (a Special Economic Zone, or SEZ) would finally be seeing light by the end of the fiscal year. The first government-lead economic zone of its kind in the country, it will cost an estimated 49 million USD to set up. And it looks like this is only the beginning; five more such zones are planned in the country. The trend is also visible a little to the south, in Tanzania and Kenya- also Nigeria. What could possibly be pushing this renewed interest in the Special Economic Zone, you ask? Because it’s not as though this is the first time (PDF-p.61) governments on the continent have warmed to the idea of SEZs. What makes the Ethiopian Minister of Industry so eager to tell the world that this new SEZ will be the “key for [their] industrialization”? Why the Chinese of course.

The Chinese?

Okay, so it’s not just the Chinese. But if you look at who is funding many of the new SEZs popping up in African countries, or if you look at the countries who are hosting conferences on SEZs, those who are in the boardrooms and Prime Minister’s Offices, providing the policy advice, giving the lessons learnt and helping to draw up the master plans, you’ll find a likely group of suspects: China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan and Korea (to a slightly lesser extent).

You’ll find no shortage of people to explain to you why this is exciting, not the least of who work in the World Bank. And they are right: the twist on South-South cooperation that is this African SEZ development in partnership with Asia has some great benefits that were not there beforehand. Take China. Not only does it have the experience setting up over 100 SEZs in its own country, Chinese politicians are playing for keeps, showing how serious they are about producing actual sustainable results in the zones they manage (Oh yes: you see, in addition to helping states set up SEZs, China has already set up a number of its own SEZs on the continent, run mainly by Chinese capital interests). Plus the Chinese are in large part subsidizing the establishment of these zones, making them more accessible to governments who previously who not have ventured that far into exploring this type of economic tool.

The real gains from partnering with East Asia

But (I know you felt this coming) all is not cotton candy and unicorns. This opportunity of learning from the East Asian development experience in this particular area is a real one, but one must be oh so careful when going down this road. After thinking it over, I’ve come to the following conclusion: the greatest benefit from East Asian collaboration on SEZ development for African countries is not the money they get to make the Zone, and it’s not the capital they attract. It’s not even the vaunted technology transfers that always make the list of plusses. The greatest benefit is the actual technical advice, the capacity gains one gets from being with a partner on the ground and seeing how they go about doing things. It’s the gains in policy-formulation, in learning literally how you write up a new law, who the best person or company is to talk to about X subject, and so on. You don’t need to copy your partner 100%, but you need to see what they are doing, who they are talking to…

Of course, the potential is there for gains from SEZs for the economy which come from the SEZ itself- that’s after all one of the reasons it’s being built. Chief among these are more competitive industries (ideally able to compete in global markets i.e. to export), technology transfers, skills acquisition, technology transfers, and so on. The expected benefits are certainly there. But the more one looks at it, the more one sees that the value from these gains is pretty ephemeral compared to the possible value of the technical know-how and policy-savvy that I mentioned earlier. This is certainly not the main line of reasoning that one hears in the papers, however. The real value of the partnership is not where it initially appears to be.

‘Leading Dragons’ is not enough

Partnering with Asian countries, especially with China, often leads to the following line of reasoning. Since wage rates in China are climbing, one can anticipate a very substantial shift of manufacturing jobs out of the Middle Kingdom and into the backyard of lesser developed Southeast Asia and Africa. Establishing SEZs with Chinese cooperation is a means of making sure that African economies get their share of this so-called ‘Leading Dragon’ effect.

But this is dangerous thinking. For one, this phenomenon isn’t a sure thing; it’s contingent on rising wages in China, but no one is sure if wages for these unskilled manufacturing jobs will keep rising at the same rates- imagine a slowdown in wage increases which lasts for a good 10 years. Where is your massive influx of manufacturing jobs now? The second point is that even if this is the case, and the demand for labor in manufacturing industries (along with the requisite relocation of said industries) actually happens, African countries still find themselves in a race-to-the-bottom competition. Without concrete gains in productivity, without harnessing the technology, then all these economic opportunities are little more than passing fancies; one cannot drive a shift in economic structure on another country’s costs of labor.

As it is, many of these Chinese-backed export zones risk becoming enclaves of special economic activity and subsidies, in unfair competition with the host country’s other domestic industries. What is more, in many cases the leadership/managerial roles in running these zones are left exclusively to the partners- that is, out of African hands. Who will ensure that the technology transfers will happen properly, that skills will be acquired, and that in short, the venture does not just become another ill-fated economic experiment? As it stands, the Africans run the risk of missing the possible high-tide brought on by the Chinese.

The East Asian Miracle- Ignored

The real value of these Africa-Asia SEZ cooperation initiatives is not, I said, where it initially appears to be. This is also because a very partial and partial (this play on words sound better in French: partiel and partial) account of how these Asian countries have used SEZs in their development seems to be privileged when it comes time to explain the role of these economic zones in East Asian countries’ development. These conferences on the subject that are held seem to drive past the larger development experience and come right down to the point: ‘How did China/Singapore succeed in establishing and managing its SEZs?’

But when you look, especially in the Chinese case, at the history, you find that it tells you more than what is being said today (it seems so at least). Case in point: Chinese establishment of SEZs was the result of and a response to gains in factor accumulation (mostly capital, some labor) as its economy enlarged, not the other way around. Now, it’s true that with 7-10 million people in Africa’s least developed economies entering the job market each year, there is a chance that smart, adaptive policies and the right type of capital inputs can bring about large economic expansion. But this isn’t really what the Chinese did, nor does it take the lesson that the Chinese example is giving.

Then there is the standard argument that the likes of Dani Rodrik have been giving against the export-led model of growth, which applies in part here too: for the East Asian Tigers, first came gains in productivity, then exports-oriented industrialization, not the other way around. Exports played a smaller role than often thought in the actual economic takeoff of the likes of Korea and Taiwan. Both these points come to the same (cautious) conclusions: 1) SEZs are the result, not the start, of a certain economic process, and have been effective in Asian countries which have already seen important gains in capital and labor inputs. 2) Economic zones have led to globally competitive domestic industries (mostly) after these industries have gained in productivity (usually through gradual competition with industrialized countries’ exports in the domestic market).

It is not clear at all that this same dynamic is taking place in East Africa. Rather, the SEZs appear to be treated as the solution in and of itself to the question of factor accumulation and total factor productivity.

The Most Important Factor

I attended a talk by Japanese professor (and industrial policy scholar) Kenichi Ohno last summer in Korea, and he said something which really gave me pause. He said that, in the process of advising the Prime Minister of Ethiopia’s office on how to set up Special Economic Zones, he received what he considered to be the best question, from some Ethiopian official. It was something like: ‘Can you show us an example of a well-written proposal? What should go in it? What does the Table of Contents look like?’

This was the best question because it was precisely with information like this, Ohno said, that the government would build the expertise necessary to successfully manage a Special Economic Zone. Once this know-how is transferred, no matter the partner -be it the Chinese, the Japanese, the Europeans, or other Africans- Ethiopia would have the tools necessary to achieve their goals- whatever those be. It struck me as a very true point. The know-how, the technical skills, the transfer of concrete experience goes miles beyond the ideology, the money, the ‘comprehensive development experience’ and the pitfalls of debates that inevitably turn to a meaningless merry-go-round of “developmental state or free market? Import substitution or export orientation?” etc.

It remains to be seen how well this know-how and these tools will be transferred and used by African countries, but this is without a doubt the richest experience that can be gleaned from these new SEZ partnerships.

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Chris Blattman

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