THE BLOG
06/07/2011 11:23 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2011

USA 5 : China 1 : Africa 0. It's Time to Get Our Game On

Team China has exactly one objective in Africa: the Chinese want to capture as much of the natural resource base as is possible to continue to fuel China's economic growth. Because the Chinese are singularly focused on this objective, they are incredibly efficient. Their development policy, their trade policy, their above board payments, and even their corruption are all perfectly aligned. They are a formidable opponent on this continental battlefield.

Team US is in disarray. Part of this stems from the fact that U.S. citizens are among the most generous people in the world. As a result, we have a multitude of agendas in Africa. We are interested in eliminating disease, decreasing poverty, improving education, and putting an end to child slavery. We are interested in ending the rape crisis in the Congo, saving the gorillas in Uganda, stopping the genocide in Somalia, and eradicating malaria across the continent.

We are interested in these things while simultaneously recognizing that we too can benefit from Africa's vast natural resources. Our cheap cell phones, our stunning diamonds, our superior Gibson guitars, not to mention some oil, are all made possible by the same natural resource base that China is trying to make away with.

In fact, US tops Germany and China by about 200 billion as the world's top exporter. Frankly, we simply don't have a domestic natural resource base that is large enough to maintain that level of production over the long term so we have to source the supplies from developing countries.

But, our interest in Africa isn't all work and no play. Have you ever been on a safari? It is fabulous. Mind blowing. Life changing. We want to visit Africa, spend our tourist dollars, photograph people, hunt wildlife, check off birds on our bird lists, buy souvenirs, and accrue fantastic stories. We spend billions of dollars to do these things.

Finally, we need an African continent that is reasonably stable because it has direct bearing on our own national security. The Department of Defense spends more than a few dollars in ensuring that poverty and disease don't translate into more terrorism training camps.

In summary, we have economic, development, philanthropic, recreational and security interests in Africa all of which are predicated on the same thing the Chinese want: the natural resources.

The problem is that while China has the singularly focused, narrowly honed strategy, we have absolutely no coherent policy on natural resource management whatsoever. Effectively, our right hand doesn't know what our left hand is doing. Sometimes our right hand doesn't even know there is a left hand.

For example, in Tanzania, the famed Serengeti generates over $1 billion in tourist dollars a year and employs 600,000 people. The Chinese are financing a road that will run right through the middle of the park threatening the tourism industry.

Simultaneously, Tanzania is in the middle of a drought and the Tanzanians are upping their development aid requests to the U.S. This 11th hour battle makes no sense: the Tanzanians are going to work with the Chinese to destroy one of their biggest revenue sources and then ask us for money to save their poor who are facing a seemingly interminable drought. What is especially mind blowing is that the Tanzanians have been asking for help to build a road, any road, for the last 14 years, but we couldn't get our act together to come up with a coordinated plan -- and we still can't.

Further afield, the South Pacific Tuna treaty collapsed last week because several businessmen were able to co-opt the playing field, and the natural resource management community was nowhere to be seen.

In short, Papua New Guinea wanted tuna to be more sustainably sourced because catch data shows a steep decline in the numbers of fish left. Bigeye Tuna catches, for example, are down over 50 percent.

A couple of U.S. businessmen, who own Taiwanese companies, thought it would be handy if they flew the U.S. flag on 25 of their Taiwanese vessels allowing them to dodge rules such as boats should be built in the U.S., vessels should carry U.S. crews, and tuna should be canned in the United States or U.S. territories.

While returning little value to the U.S. taxpayer and/or consumer, the businessmen benefited from treaty perks such as a $1600 per U.S. vessel cost to fish as compared to Japan's $6000. The treaty fell through because the conservation folks, Commerce, Department of Defense, and State Department have absolutely no idea what their position is and taxpayers are left with a fishery on the verge of collapse, 25 years of hard work in shambles, and millions of U.S. philanthropic and taxpayer dollars wasted.

What do we do about this quandary? Three things:

First we encourage the US Government to get organized. One way to do this is build a unit that coordinates efforts between departments. While this is a new idea as pertains to management of natural resources, it has precedents in different shapes and sizes. Such coordination in effort won't cost more, in fact, it will save money. Efforts to do this are underway and should be supported.

Second, civil society, including NGOs, foundations, and corporations, need to work across sectors to plan, implement, and monitor efforts. There are a lot of organizations trying to make a lot of good things happen. All it takes is one Chinese road through a project area to undermine the thousands, in some cases millions of dollars that are being invested. The only way to garner enough strength to stop the Chinese is to combine financial and technical resources and work together as a team.

Finally, we have to recognize that careful use of natural resources and smart economic planning are necessary to help developing countries climb their way out of poverty. This means listening to the needs and objectives of developing countries and ensuring that solutions are found that support the big picture. It is hard to see the big picture when your citizens are dying from famine, disease and drought. Our generosity and economic policies can help bridge the divide between the short term needs and long term goals that poor countries often face.

If we are going to play this game we have to play smarter and faster than the Chinese. These natural resources in Africa, and elsewhere, are finite. The solutions are there, the money is there, the technology is there, we just have to get our lineup in order.