The Race for Resources – “Winner Takes All” – Dambisa Moyo

Dambisa Moyo’s book, “Winner Takes All” is an important book that should be read by everyone interested in sustainability. The subject of the book, the growing need for resources and the failure of our current political and economic structures to react to this need, is an important one that goes to the heart of what sustainability is. Her time horizon is measured in decades, not years, and the relevance of her subject is as much for the next generation as it is for this one. The subtitle to the book ‘China’s race for resources and what it means for us’ is a canny one, and will have garnered her many readers for whom books on global economics or commodity shortages are rarely on their reading lists. The decades-old fear of China is hard to shake off and some readers will have bought this book in the hope of having their worst fears confirmed. The Chinese are coming!

Except that they’re not, at least not in that way. They are coming to resource-rich and money-poor countries, though. China has a different political and economic structure to the rest of us, and that means that they look at resource shortages in a different way too. For China, it is important to keep the population happy in the long term, because without that their entire political and economic structure is at risk. For most democracies, the focus is on the need to keep the population happy in the short term, because that is what keeps the current party in power. China’s longer term outlook has led them to sign multi-billion deals with Africa, Asian, and South American countries that deliver infrastructure and other benefits to the host country and deliver long-term resource flows for China. These resources range from copper, oil, and coal to keep the hungry Chinese industrial machine fed, and cotton, chicken and beef to keep the increasingly demanding consumer society clothed and fed. As these resources become scarcer, China is taking steps to keep them flowing to their people.

The interesting question that she raises is this, by signing these deals over the last decade, China appears to have stolen a march on other developing and developed nations and paid over the odds for these resources. Is this really the case? It’s akin to paying too much in today’s market for houses in a neighbourhood that isn’t much in demand now, but is a good prospect in two decades time. China’s strategy might work out in economic terms, and it might not. Between 2005 and 2012 China invested $400 billion overseas. This is not small change. What is concerning is that China appears to be the only major economy doing deals on this scale. China is able to do so because we have outsourced so much of our manufacturing there over the last few decades and they have a huge trade surplus that enables these deals. China is betting that it will need these resources, and all indicators are that they are correct. Other countries, including the developed nations will need them too, but don’t appear to be as interested, or if they are they seem to be unable to organise themselves to act. The recent GOP/Democratic squabbles are a good example of this. Dambisa contrasts the US foreign policy behaviour with that of China over the last decade, one the US side its a litany of failure, aggression, naked self-interest, paternalism and division. On the Chinese side its a different story of political disinterest, commercial goodwill, win-win agreements, and a long list of happy partners. The contrast could hardly be greater.

I commend this book to you, it covers a complex topic well, and the subject matter is very relevant to anyone interested in working towards a sustainable future.

 

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