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Hands on the talking stick

Updated: 2013-05-10 11:04
By Todd Balazovic ( China Daily)

Hands on the talking stick

Hands on the talking stick

Hands on the talking stick

Hands on the talking stick

Think tanks playing an increasingly vital role in furthering China-Africa ties

When ancient Africans gathered for tribal discussions on the dusty Sahara, leaders in the group would often exchange a trinket that designated who could talk. The talking stick was believed to house a spirit inside that empowered the holder to speak the truth.

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And the spirit of truth seeking for China and Africa's relationship in the 21st century is in the hands of think tanks - organizations dedicated to unraveling the complexities between two of the fastest developing landscapes through research and analysis.

As the future of China and Africa become increasingly intertwined, China's thought leaders are constantly seeking to better understand Africa, a land that 20 years ago remained as mysterious to China as the Middle Kingdom was to the rest of the world.

Helping to do so is a new string of organizations created in the last decade, which are dedicated to researching what makes Africa and the Sino-Africa relationship tick.

"Sino-African cooperation has become an important international phenomenon," says Liu Hongwu, director of the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University.

"In the past five to 10 years, whether in China or in African countries, the number of China-Africa think tanks focusing on African issues and Sino-African relations has significantly increased."

Catalyzing the growth of China-Africa think tanks was the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2000. From fewer than a half dozen prior to inception, there are now more than 20 China-Africa think tanks, each with a different area of expertise, focusing on different aspects of bilateral ties.

The more specialized newcomers include Xiangtan University's African Law and Society Research Center, founded in 2005 and Nanjing Agricultural University's Center for Agricultural Research in Africa, founded in 2007.

"Some of these institutions are operated in the governmental departments, some are non-governmental and some are operated as enterprises," Liu says.

While it is hard to pin down how much funding is being put into the new organizations, Liu says a majority are funded by the government.

This is one distinction between what is classified as a think tank in places such as the US or Europe, where independently-financed think tanks such as the Brookings Institute often act as independent players, helping academic communities and policymakers, and China, where think tanks are primarily academic institutions.

Hailed as the third-generation of Africa researchers, institutions like IAS represent the new wave of interest in both political and economic understanding of Africa. It was founded in 2007 and employs roughly 25 scholars dedicated to researching Africa.

With most think tanks averaging around five full-time scholars, IAS is also one of the largest. This has allowed them to publish several reports each month focusing on a variety of issues from culture - their most recent study examined the influence of African music in the Chinese mainland over the past 30 years - to business - with a report released last month offering suggestions on how business and government should handle labor disputes in African countries with large concentrations of Chinese enterprises.

With increasing demand for information on China-Africa issues and increase in the number of think tanks has come a shortage in the number of scholars with experience in researching Africa.

The result is a mass calling for new graduates to realign their studies to Africa with a majority of the new researchers being fresh graduates with PhDs who have never studied Africa before.

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