An article from University of Oslo

The Many African restaurants in Guangzhou are often host to business meetings. (Photo: Heidi Østbø Haugen)
The Many African restaurants in Guangzhou are often host to business meetings. (Photo: Heidi Østbø Haugen)

Making Europe irrelevant

Europe is becoming less relevant to the countries of the South. Why? The story of the Sino-Nigerian couple at the airport provides the answer.

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University of Oslo

The University of Oslo is Norway's leading institution of research and higher education.

When Heidi Østbø Haugen begins to explain what her doctorate is all about, she likes to talk about the couple she met at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria. She was Chinese, and he was Nigerian. They were on their way to China. In their case they had thousands of dollar bills. The couple had a business organising remittances.

The Sino-Nigerian couple symbolize a world economy in transition. A world economy where Europe and the U.S. play an increasingly smaller role. A world economy where more and more trade takes place between countries of the South. A world economy that astonishingly small groups of migrants are helping to shape.

As with the couple at the airport. Without people like these who engage in money transfers and other informal services, trade between China and Africa would stall. Without people like them China may never have become Africa's largest trading partner.

More migration = more trade

This is actually what the doctoral dissertation, which Heidi Østbø Haugen is to defend 1 March 2013, is all about: the relationship between migration and trade. The more people that move back and forth, the greater the trade between the countries. In her thesis she explains why this is the case.

Heidi Østbø Haugen has now started on her postdoctor project "Production, trade and consumption in South-South commodity flows: Re-theorizing from below". (Photo: private)
Heidi Østbø Haugen has now started on her postdoctor project "Production, trade and consumption in South-South commodity flows: Re-theorizing from below". (Photo: private)

For years, the human geographer has studied how, by means of migration, China has become Africa's most important trading partner. Haugen has spent several months on fieldwork in China, Nigeria and Cape Verde.

A large part of this trade is driven by individuals and small businesses. Within the space of a few years, a small group of 300 Chinese immigrants were able to revolutionize the market for consumer goods in the West African country of Cape Verde.

Africa's role

In the media and academia there has been much awareness around the Chinese in Africa. In her thesis Haugen also shows the important role African migrants play in the growing Sino-African trade.

The southern city of Guangzhou has become a center for African migrants engaged in trade with Africa. Here they can negotiate directly with Chinese factories. Some live in China while others travel back and forth. In China, they have built up an extensive infrastructure for trade with Africa. It has therefore become easier for people in Nigeria to trade with China than with the more established trading destinations like Dubai.

And it's not only cheap products that they sell to Africa:

"My informants exported everything from tomato puree and motorcycles to clothing, solar panels and touch screen mobile devices," says the researcher.

Lack of trust

So why are migrants so important for trade?

"It is very difficult to keep track of which products people in different parts of Africa will buy. Only by observing the market with their own eyes can traders know what sells and at what price. More than one hundred thousand Chinese enterpreneurs have settled in Africa to monitor the market," the human geographer explains.

Migration is particularly important for trade between countries where one cannot rely on governments and institutions such as the police and the judiciary. Banking services are unavailable to many of those she has researched. Goods and services are paid for in cash.

When you cannot trust institutions, it is more important to have people in place in whom one has confidence, she explains.

"Would you dare to travel from Nigeria to China with $ 30,000 in cash, knowing the danger of meeting a corrupt customs official, or being robbed? Instead, people send money with professional couriers who know what they are doing and who pay officials to look the other way."

Open approach to migration

This large-scale migration has been possible because both China and various countries in Africa have an open approach to migration.

"Had China been as closed as Europe is today many of these initiatives would not have been started. For trade between China and Africa it is essential to be able to move around," she says.

This insight is also relevant for policy-making, the researcher points out:

"If one believes that trade is important, the question that arises is: How can we exploit this relationship between migration and trade? Especially when we already have immigration."

Ironically, it is Fortress Europe which has helped to ensure that Europe is becoming increasingly less irrelevant to the countries of the South.

"Many who originally intended to go to Europe, met with closed borders and had to find alternatives. That is how China has become a favorite destination for many people I met. When I and a Chinese company representative were traveling in Nigeria, people shouted after us "Take me to China." I received almost no attention. I figured that interest in Europe is waning," she says.

But China and some African countries have started to be stricter. This puts many migrants in a difficult situation.

Not only "talent"

In designing a new immigration law China is looking to Europe. China also wants to attract "talent" and would like to keep the "undesirable" out.

This is not necessarily a smart approach according to the researcher:

"It's not as simple as looking at a person's resume to know what the person can contribute to the development of the country. Some of those who came from Africa to China had neither qualifications nor concrete plans about what opportunities to pursue there. They would mostly just emigrate. But they have become very wealthy by trading between China and Africa. Their export businesses are indirectly responsible for many other jobs in China."

Just as with trade contact increases between the people of China and Africa. People acquire new cultural capital. As with the couple at the airport other Chinese and Africans have discovered that there are advantages to starting "inter-ethnic" businesses.

Being fond of each other

Chinese and Africans are fond of each other, new friendships occur, people marry across religion and nationality:

"Of course there is also racism in China, but when you look at what people actually do, it is amazing that a woman from rural China, who does not speak English, learns English, becomes fond of a man from Nigeria, they marry and their families accept it."

"We are probably still some way from most Norwegian parents accepting that their daughter marry a Nigerian. For many Chinese parents, this is part of the profound changes they are experiencing in the society around them and they accept it."

Despite all of this, economics and migration are two fields that are mostly researched separately within academia

"I'm surprised how little interest there has been in the relationship between migration and economic activity. It is important that interaction between research into these two fields is better," she says.

Translated by: Matthew Rix Whiting

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