Book review: “Building BRICS: The new scramble for Africa” by Barbara Njau

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Reviewed for the South African Foreign Policy Initiative (SAFPI).

Will the rise of the emerging economies portend just a broadening of the “great game” in Africa? Or will the global South seize this opportunity to forge a new and more inclusive paradigm that secures faster and more sustainable development for all citizens? Can we look forward to exciting paradigm shifts in the discourses on global trade, aid, development cooperation and the rhetoric of best practice? Will emergent regional and global plurilateral groupings afford new avenues for effective development cooperation?

Since South-South cooperation has grown so much, the importance of these questions has grown considerably. Promoters of stronger ties among the Global South in Brasília, Beijing and New Delhi regularly argue that South-South cooperation is qualitatively different from North-South Cooperation - for example, loans are said to have fewer strings attached, to be less invasive and less paternalistic. Since donors in the Global South are still fighting poverty themselves, many argue, they are set to be more effective operators in recipient countries.

Yet while praising South-South cooperation unconditionally may work for now, it may also backfire at some point. This is particularly the case in Africa, where growing ties with the Global South are at times seen as a panacea of many problems, and a welcome alternative to North-South cooperation. Systematically holding South-South cooperation to higher standards than North-South cooperation is bound to lead to disappointment among Africans, particularly as long as many areas of South-South cooperation remain largely noninstitutionalized, nontransparent and unregulated.

In this context, Barbara Njau's short book is an interesting contribution to the debate. Her brief and accessible analysis provides many interesting examples of the BRICS' growing influence in Africa - for example Russian investors' engagement in Lubumbashi in the DRC. At the same time, it is somewhat unclear to the reader whether the sources Njau quotes are the result of her own field research or taken from other sources. In addition, the trade data she quotes is too old to be relevant (the book was published in 2013, and she at times cites 2008 figures). The lack of footnotes makes it difficult to verify the (often fascinating) information the author provides, often introduced  by phrases such as "according to CNN,...". That said,  Njau's book is not academic - she does not seek to develop any specific theory - but rather meant as a series of longer journalistic articles for a general readership. 

In the end, the book's overall message is ambiguous. Njau's description of emerging powers' growing presence in Africa is almost entirely positive. And yet, the book's title ("Scramble for Africa") has a decidedly negative connotation, implying that the BRICS are seeking to exploit Africa. For Njau, the BRICS' economic engagement in Africa seems to be positive, irrespectively of whether South-South trade is qualitatively better than North-South ties: "Despite the potential pitfalls in Africa's new relationships, there is a pervasive belief that at least for now, the continent's prospects are bright."

Read also: 

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Book review: “India in Africa: Changing Geographies of Power” by E. Mawdsley and G. McCann (eds.)

What is Brazil doing in Africa?