China’s successes in anti-poverty and development drives: Lessons for the 21st century Sub-Saharan Africa

By Olusoji Samuel Carnegie (Independent Researcher and Postdoctoral Researcher with Professor Akin Alao, Department of History, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, Nigeria)

Note: This content is produced by an independent researcher and does not represent the views of the Africa-China Reporting Project or the Wits Centre for Journalism.


Irrefutably, poverty is present everywhere in the world. But the kind in Africa is too grave in manifestation and widest spread in its consequences. As rightly submitted by Allison in 2018, abject poverty of the kind found in Africa is not only anti-poor but is also anti-human. It shrinks the human body, degrades the spirit, and shortens life.1 Malnourishment stunts children’s growth, dulls their eyes and deforms their minds. As the World Bank describes in detail, “children who are stunted have up to 40 percent less brain volume by the time they get past their first 1,000 days”, leaving them mentally handicapped for life. Thirty years ago, one in five Chinese children below the age of five was underweight. Now it is one in 50. If China can do this, then Africa too can!

As observed by Oyeshola’s piece in African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines, in other places (such as China) any manifestation of poverty provided  unparalleled motivation and determination for their leaders to successfully drive development and drastically reduce poverty but in sub-Saharan Africa, the reverse is the case. This article argues that if China can eliminate extreme poverty through attainment of meaningful economic development; Africa can also achieve the same feat by drawing necessary lessons from the Chinese experience.  For example, Martin Ravallion and others have demonstrated rightly that China, before a series of reforms which began in 1978, had a far higher poverty rate than Africa as a whole at that time. The difference, however, lies in the fact that while manifestations of poverty and misery have propelled China to prosperity and progress; poverty remains the gravest hindrance to African development in the 21st century. Therefore, the continent and international community continue to seek for better ways out of extreme poverty and how to achieve sustainable development in Africa. Learning from Chinese anti-poverty strategies and development models by Africa has been dominating the debates especially since turn of the new millennium. This piece examines the issues of poverty and development in the context of Africa’s relationship with China. It addresses the question of how the Chinese examples can positively influence anti-poverty efforts and assist in the accomplishment of development in the 21st century Africa.

Background and context

Tackling poverty as a global affliction requires universal antidotes. It is therefore not surprising that goal number one of both United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals and U.N. Sustainable Development Goals focused fundamentally on eliminating extreme poverty globally. As reflected in the analysis of Marta Schoch and Christoph Lakner, the 2020 global poverty estimates reveal that 9.2 percent of the global population lives below the US$1.90 global poverty line. This translates into 689 million people still living in extreme poverty. Global extreme poverty rose in 2020 for the first time in over 20 years as the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the forces of conflict and climate change, which were already slowing poverty reduction progress. About 100 million   additional people are living in poverty because of the pandemic.

Arguably, China, over the years has become the hottest topic in international relations and discourses. This is not only because of its unprecedented economic development and the consequential emergence as a global power; but also its elevation of 850 million of its citizens from abject poverty to relative prosperity,a development that has been described as miraculous. According to Chengwei Huang, China became the first developing country to achieve the first goal of the Millennium Development Goals. Expenditure and living conditions data by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, available for the year 2018, suggest that against an international poverty line of US$1.90 per day, the poverty rate had declined to below 0.5 percent. This suggests China has reduced the number of poor people by close to 800 million since 1980. And if Africa still harbors the poorest of the poor in the world; it is not out of place if African countries focus more on how they can strategically utilize the opportunities that their relations with China have to offer to successfully lift the millions of their citizens out of grinding poverty that has been ravaging the beleaguered continent for ages.

Sino-African relations refer to the historical, political, economic, military, social and cultural connections between China and the African continent. Little is known about ancient relations between China and the African continent, though there is some evidence of early trade connections. Modern political and economic relations commenced in the era of Mao Zedong, the first leader of the Chinese Communist Party, following the Chinese Civil War. Starting in the 21st century, the modern state of the People’s Republic of China (commonly known as “China”) has built increasingly strong economic ties, security and development activities, infrastructure projects connected to the Belt and Road Initiative, and peace and security operations in the region. This relationship has also enhanced economic diversificationjob creation and connectivity in Africa.

According to journalist Howard W. French, there are an estimated one million Chinese citizens residing in Africa. By comparison, it has been estimated that as at 2021 about 500,000 Africans are working in China.   The coordinating mechanism of the relations, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was established in October 2000 as a multilateral entity  for strengthening the relationship. Our investigation has revealed that, while most African countries and the African Union (AU) have been benefitting massively from the Chinese ‘soft power’ diplomacy in forms of: humanitarian interventions (health, peace keeping, education etc); grants/interest free loans; gift of US$ 200 million AU’s headquarters; massive Foreign Direct Investment among others; Only Rwanda, Ghana and Ethiopia are said to be interested in  borrowing from purposeful leadership, responsible/responsive public and corporate governance; strict and effective war against corruption; deliberate/successful anti-poverty strategies and pro-poor policies/programs among others that are mainly responsible the current enviable global status that China has attained. The primary focus of most African leaders on the ‘Chinese cheese’ and the increasing narratives and criticisms against the so-called ‘Chinese neo-colonialism’ in Africa calls for a new appraisal of the real lessons that Africa is actually learning from her new romance with China.

Lessons for Africa

There is no dearth of ideas when it comes to possible lessons accruable to Africa from the Sino-Afro relations in the drive towards development and the fight against poverty. For examples: Calestous Juma  of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Makhtar Diop, Maria Ana Lugo, Martin Raiser and Ruslan Yemtsov of the World Bank  pointed to: economic transformation through industrialization, productivity, pro-poor growth/development, human capital development/education, health, agriculture, physical capital(infrastructure), savings and purposeful/assertive leadership as areas that Africa should focus in order to benefit maximally from her relationship with China.3 However, we must be reminded that who gets what especially in terms of benefits accruable to Africa towards developmental drives  and poverty alleviation depend mostly on the creativity and strategic thinking of the leaders. Therefore, I want to emphasise the following lessons: The first is the historical lesson in this. One of the most fundamental lessons Africa can take from China is that one’s perilous past or history should not endanger the present or put the future in perpetual jeopardy. As a matter of fact, Africa may have some peculiarities, but it shared long history of conquest, foreign domination, and chronic poverty with China. Like Africa, China’s older generations suffered deprivation that most people in modern Western countries can barely imagine. The difference, however, lies in the fact that manifestations of poverty and misery have propelled China to prosperity and progress by defining it peculiar growth path based on its history, culture, and institutions. Therefore in order to drive development and defeat poverty, Africa must create the conditions to define it growth path, based on its history,  culture and  institutions.

Strongly linked with the above is the need to adopt the Chinese transformational leadership at all levels of governance in Africa from political terrain to public and private sectors. This is the only way the Chinese’ magnitude of economic transformation and poverty alleviation can happen in Africa. It has been noted by experts that:

“…. China’s experience shows again that rapid economic and social development in poor countries can happen, in a context of globalization, when strong development-oriented leadership emerges, focused on development performance rather than entrenched policies and interests….”4

Sadly, Africa still lacks development-oriented leadership capable of drilling poverty to the barest minimum level across all strata of the society through the required near-absolute development drives like China. While it is impossible to replicate the Chinese experience in development drives and poverty reduction exactly in Africa but certainly it is possible for African leaders to learn and apply some of the Chinese ideas through strategic approaches based on African needs and reality.  

Productivity conquers poverty by enhancing prosperity among any productive society. The lesson here is that Africa like China must engage in aggressive economic reforms  that will lead to extreme productivity in order to defeat extreme poverty.  Often the question is asked as to which economic model Africa should adopt to drive its development. To answer this, I will suggest that just as China was able develop a distinctive economic model termed  “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” or “socialist market economy; Africa must also strive to evolve “the African Model”, or “the African Models.” To achieve this, there must be deliberate policies from African governments to refocus on human capacity development which will boost their indigenous technological/professional/entrepreneurial skills and drive towards continental industrialization. This should be done nationally with support from the African Union.  

So, for Africa to benefit maximally from its engagements with China, African leaders must evolve an ‘Afro-centric’ approach which will largely: enhance self-reliance and creative powers of the entire people and shift from the primary focus on Chinese aid to trade and investments between the two entities. This should be done with the aim of creating regional (through the African Union) and national frameworks guiding this camaraderie with China. To achieve this, there is the urgent need for : creation of regional/national guiding frameworks; mainstreaming of Chinese studies in their  Universities) and other relevant research institutes; deliberately dealings with some specialized Chinese agencies (such as, International Poverty Reduction Center in China (IPRCC), Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, China Foundation For Poverty Alleviation, China Academy of Social Sciences and a host of others) in order to have first hand information and education about the Chinese models of development and anti-poverty strategies. This will greatly assist in integrating and pragmatic applications of these ideas in the day-to-day governance at all levels in Africa.

As most countries in Africa are enmeshed in crises of nation building exemplified by grand corruption in high and low places, Chinese Confucianism offer great lessons on how to engage in ethical revolution by utilizing  culture as the strongest weapon for national consciousness, patriotism and national rebirth. All over the world, China is renowned for its zero tolerance for corruption almost the same way the country has earned positive global recognition in the successful war against extreme poverty. The logic is very simple, no corrupt nation has ever developed or fought poverty successfully.

This piece further argues that all pervasive grand corruption in Africa is one of the main reasons for the age-long grinding poverty and underdevelopment on the continent. As the Catholic Secretariat once observed, corruption in Nigeria (as in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa) breeds inefficiency, diminishes productivity, discourages investment, fuels inflation and capital flight and institutes regime of poverty and unemployment…. Therefore, if Africa will ever escape extreme poverty and experience meaningful development, ‘corruption must be killed, before it killed us.’5   The best way to win the war against corruption in Africa is the China way- death sentence to the culprits (especially the public or government officials at all levels).6


 In conclusion, it is very apt here to refer to the immortal thought of late Obafemi Awolowo that the best way to achieve genuine peace and development in Africa is by successfully waging “….the war against grinding poverty, hunger, preventable diseases, squalor, and ignorance among the masses of our people….” with purposeful leadership, patriotism, and grim determination.7 And perhaps the best way to achieve this is by imbibing and practicing the critical lessons accruable to most African leaders and citizens from their new found love with China. Certainly, China has been a positive influence on African economies, but one country alone cannot eliminate global poverty. As Deborah Brautigam  once stressed: “only African governments can play this role in Africa, not China. While African countries could use China as a model (in combination with existing models) for reducing poverty and achieve overall development; they must continue to strive to create creative conditions for wealth generation and greater opportunities for Africans just as China is doing for the Chinese.


1 Graham Allison ,  “Beijing’s anti-poverty drive has lessons for all” , 2018.

2 This is according to the World Bank and the International Poverty Reduction Center in China (IPRCC)

3 See: Calestous Juma, “Lessons Africa Must Learn from Chinese Expansion,” available at;Makhtar Diop,  “Lessons for Africa from China’s Growth” online at : and  Maria Ana Lugo, Martin Raiser, and Ruslan Yemtsov What’s next for poverty reduction policies in China?, . Retrieved on February , 2022

4 Nadège Rolland, “a new great game? Situating Africa in China’s Strategic Thinking” NBR Special Report No 91, 2021 at . Retrieved on February 25, 2022

5 See

6 See

7 Obafemi Awolowo,(public lecture,May 1970 in Ibadan)Quoted in  Tekena N.Tamuno, Stakeholders at War in Nigeria, from Lord Lugard to Goodluck  Jonathan,Vol.2,Ibadan,Stirling-Holden Publishers Ltd.2012.65.

Dr Olusoji Samuel Carnegie (formerly Olusoji Samuel Oyeranmi) earned his Doctor of Literature and Philosophy  from the University of South Africa (UNISA) in 2018. He was until September 30th 2021, a Lecturer at the Department of History and Diplomatic Studies, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye, Ogun State, Nigeria; where introduced two courses on “Introduction to Chinese History and China-Africa Relations into the Departmental Curriculum. He is currently an Independent Researcher and a Postdoctoral Researcher with Professor Akin Alao, Department of History, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, Nigeria. His research interests include: Environmental history, Chinese Studies, International/Diplomatic History, Urban Studies, Peace/Ethnic Studies, Democracy and Development, Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Youth Development.