As China builds on five decades of humanitarian projects in Africa, Vietnam is following suit by promoting new research and consulting partnerships with African allies.
At a conference in Hanoi in August, "Vietnam-Africa: A cooperation for sustainable development", Vietnamese officials announced they were sending educational, medical and agricultural consultants to Africa and encouraging African students and researchers to visit Vietnam.
Cheick Sidi Diarra (above), special adviser on Africa for the United Nations, called Vietnam's engagement with the continent a model of South-South cooperation.
The research and consulting plans are part of a broader initiative designed to complement and reinforce Vietnam's growing trade with Africa, which according to Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem increased from US$360 million in 2003 to US$2 billion last year.
Agricultural consulting, particularly on rice cultivation, is a major focus of Vietnam's Africa initiative.
Since the inaugural Vietnam-Africa forum in 2003 Vietnam, the world's second-largest rice exporter after Thailand, has sent rice experts to help farmers in Senegal, Madagascar, Benin and other African countries.
The experts include professors from Can Tho and An Giang universities in Vietnam's fertile Mekong Delta.
Vietnamese students and researchers "express interest in working in Africa because they want to help", said Phuong Nguyen, Vietnam country director at the Vietnam Education Foundation, which promotes educational exchanges between Vietnam and the United States.
A report released at the Vietnam-Africa forum in August said Vietnam had welcomed 'dozens' of African students since 2003. It noted that 35 students and academics from Mozambique alone visited Vietnam last year.
Vietnam's goal of boosting educational and humanitarian ties with Africa reflects a growing interest in Africa on the part of regional neighbours such as South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, Kenneth King, an emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh and an Africa expert, told University World News.
China's educational forays into Africa are an obvious model for Vietnamese policy-makers. Between the 1950s and early 2000s, China sent 500 teachers to 35 African countries. From 1998 to 2003, nearly 300 students from 42 African countries attended educational seminars in China.
And in 2006, China set a three-year goal of educating 15,000 African professionals, building 100 schools in rural Africa and increasing the annual number of African scholars studying in China from 2,000 to 4,000, said King, in a lecture at Rhodes University in South Africa last month.
On 30 March, Chinese and African leaders gathered in Beijing to launch the China-Africa Joint Research and Exchange Programme, which they called a significant step in deepening strategic relations, according to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Scholarships and teacher-exchanges are part of China's broader development agenda in Africa.
According to a 2009 report by the US Congressional Research Service, China's foreign aid and government-sponsored economic projects in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia increased from less than $1billion in 2002 to $25 billion in 2007. Compared with the other regions, China's investments in Africa showed the "most significant increase".
China's economic interests in Africa dwarf Vietnam's. Bilateral trade between China and Africa increased from $10 billion in 2000 to $106.8 billion in 2008, according to He Wenping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, making Africa its second-largest overseas labour market.
Data suggest Vietnam is in a better position than ever to share information and expertise with less developed countries. Vietnam's annual gross domestic product grew by between 6% and 8% between 1990 and 2008, and by 2008 its literacy rate was 93%. The World Bank now considers Vietnam a lower middle-income country.
At the 2003 Vietnam-Africa forum, former Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai portrayed Vietnam's commitment to Africa in patriotic terms, claiming its independence movement was a "great source of inspiration for Africans in their fight against colonialism" and that ties between Vietnam and Africa would promote peace, cooperation and development.
Potential business deals are also a motivation for promoting humanitarian engagement. Addressing diplomats in Hanoi in August, Deputy Prime Minister Khiem said that in addition to supporting development in Africa, Vietnamese companies planned to extract oil, gas and precious metals.
Vietnam's state-owned oil and gas company, PetroVietnam, began doing business in Africa in 2001, according to a company statement released in August. Now six of its 20 exploration and production projects are in Africa, a 'focus region'.
Such links between business and development echo an adage that foreign scholars use to describe China's humanitarian projects in Africa, said King: "The icing on the cake of resource extraction."
Not surprisingly, according to King, China's rapidly increasing investment and presence in Africa had a direct impact on the type of education and training partnerships China established with African countries.
Before following China's lead, Vietnam should learn more about Africa than the Chinese did before investing there, cautioned Professor Deborah Bräutigam, a Chinese expert at American University in Washington DC, in an interview with University World News.
"The Chinese have gone about it a little backwards," Bräutigam said. "They ratcheted up their investments quite significantly, but they didn't understand the nature of the state and the government in Africa.
"There's a lot of corruption."
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