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AFRICA's ‘INFRASTRUCTURE GLOBALITIES’: Rethinking the Political Geographies of Economic Hubs from the Global South

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - INFRAGLOB (AFRICA's ‘INFRASTRUCTURE GLOBALITIES’: Rethinking the Political Geographies of Economic Hubs from the Global South)

Reporting period: 2021-04-01 to 2022-09-30

The Africa’s Infrastructure Globalities project (INFRAGLOB) researches the new infrastructure globalities that emerge through growing South-South relations, using Chinese and Brazilian large-scale projects in Africa as entry points. It aims to understand how transnational governance is redefined by models, experiences and standards of actors from the Global South.

Two subprojects seek to 1) understand the narratives that dominate Africa-Brazil and Africa-China relations, and 2) analyse how Chinese and Brazilian sites of large-scale projects are governed in everyday practice, focusing on the management of community relations and security.

Building on that, another subproject (4) determines when practices from Chinese and Brazilien projects in Africa travel and transform broader transnational governance. Our focus here is on dynamics within ever more diverse practitioner communities and how through them change in global governance comes about. We focus on two policy fields, security and community relations.

Finally, Infraglob rethinks publics in the context of South-South relations in a further subproject (3). The objective here is to map how mobilization around infrastructure hubs constitutes new trans-local publics that connect Africa with China and/or Brazil, and identify what new conceptual tools they demand and how they differ from 'North-South' mobilisations. Since important parts of trans-local mobilization and controversy take place in virtual space, this project works with an innovative mix of digital, computational methods and fieldwork.
For 1) and 2), we have completed a study of Brazilian Vale S.A. company in Mozambique. We found three core components to characterize the Brazilian South-South discourse: solidarity, affinities, and tropical technologies. Extending the analysis beyond Brazil’s foreign policy proved crucial for unpacking the black box of the ‘South-South’ notion and grasp how different sets of actors use it in different ways. In an article under review, Eric Cezne and I argue that while the election of Bolsonaro made the South–South discourse appear to be relegated to the past, it is important to consider the agency of other actors beyond the government to understand the continuities in Brazil-Africa relations: Mozambican power elites and corporate professionals in particular.
What sets Brazilian practices apart from that of others in particular are claims to tropical and racial exceptionalism. Vale’s approach to social responsibility in Mozambique is still based on a belief in Brazilian tropical solutions to African problems. Paradoxically, this has led to the transfer of development models that often overlook differences and remain oblivious to local conditions. Further, imaginaries of Brazil’s benign, harmonious race relations have made their way across the South Atlantic. However, Mozambicans’ perceptions indicate that relations are marked by racial ambivalences, prejudices, and lack of trust.
We began research on the case of China in 2020. A discourse analysis of Chinese governmental and corporate discourses on China-Africa relations - a term preferred over ‘South-South’ relations – is being conducted. In terms of practices, we identify relationality and improvisation as core elements to characterize the approach of Chinese companies to the governance of relations with African host societies.

Drawing from practice theories, Infraglob shifts attention away from state-centric accounts of emerging powers to the role of professionals and travelling knowledge in 4). While proven useful to understand stability and reproduction, practice thinking can be mobilized to also understand change. Three pathways to change in and through practice are important: a) struggles in transnational professional fields, b) learning and innovation in transnational practice communities and c) practices of justification and translations.
In a paper under review, we draw from pragmatist sociology (Boltanski) on orders of worth, in order to demonstrate the multitude of moral registers Chinese professionals use in implementing projects in Africa. We consider available ethnographic evidence and find and unpack a Market order, a Socialist (Party Line) order, a Confucian order, a Daoist order, and a Buddhist order at work. Instead of arguing for or against a supposedly ‘Western’ or ‘Chinese’ model, we thus show the irreducible plurality of modes of action at work.

Finally, in our study of transnational publics we do not understand publics as given but as situational, that is as emerging from controversies around issues – such as infrastructure projects. Social media play an important role in translocal mobilization. However, in the Global South these processes are characterized by lesser intensity and more peak-based structure. At this stage of our research, differences can partially be attributed to a different media landscape, which is characterized by the low internet penetration that limits possibilities of local activist groups to use digital platforms. There are also important differences in different socioeconomic and political contexts. We also find substantial differences in the use of online platforms for individual infrastructure projects. In the case of Western platforms (e.g Twitter), logistics-related projects (e.g. ports) tend to provoke more intense discussions compared with other types of projects. At the same time, mining projects are the ones which are characterized by particularly strong negative reactions from platform users.
We complement the ongoing analysis of social media data with computational methods with qualitative methods. The latter focuses on more organized, visible forms of contestation. In Forging transnational ties from below (2019 in Extractive Industries and Society), Eric Cezne analyses for instance the emergence of transnational contestation to Vale linking Mozambican and Brazilian civil society groups in new ways within the International Articulation of those Affected by Vale.
The Infrastructure Globalities project provides a unique understanding of how South-South relations changes practices of governance and business-society relations in a multipolar world.Assuming different agents and sites of change in global governance - not elites, governments or official negotiations, but practitioners who produce expertise and implement governance - enables us to theorize the making of different ‘globalities’, and change in transnational governance, in new ways.

INFRAGLOB is an interdisciplinary project that moves beyond prevailing state-centric accounts of emerging powers and South-South relations. Studying Chinese and Brazilian investment in African mines and ports as frontier zones reveals emerging new governance practices. We aim for constructing a new understanding of transnational governance from Africa, contributing to a global, non-Western-centric understanding of International Relations.

In terms of methods, the project combines computational, digital methods with field-work based methods in new ways to study situational publics in South-South relations. Specifically, the project advances automated controversy detection approaches and integrates them with conceptual work on controversy coming from the field of STS to provide a more nuanced, albeit scalable solution for controversy detection on online platforms (e.g. social media and news websites) and get at situational publics.