Two years ago I attended a conference at the Overseas Development Institute in London on the future of aid and I was fascinated and a little surprised to watch presentations from countries such Colombia, South Africa and Mexico, all nations that had recently started overseas aid programmes – admittedly they were modest in size and devoted to providing technical assistance and “lessons learned”, rather than large amounts of cash, but still a potent sign that the West no longer had a monopoly on international development. I knew more about China’s overseas development strategy, but I was also reminded at the conference that their own overseas programs started many years ago, soon after the establishment of the Communist government – with the provision of barefoot doctors and technical advice to many African nations. These activities were often dismissed as cover for revolutionary activities and similarly today Chinese aid is confused and mixed up with its business projects – leading to the impression that China is flooding Africa and Latin America with freebies and the lazy assumption that they are bribing governments in return for natural resources.
The Chinese government do not help themselves by failing to clarify how much they really spend on overseas development, probably in part because they do not want to inflame opinion at home, where approximately 100 million people still live in extreme poverty and could be said to be in need of the funds themselves.
To help remedy these misconceptions the Institute of Development Studies has just produced a much warranted collection of essays examining China’s actions and motives in the overseas aid arena, which have often been overlooked or filed alongside Chinese business and political ties with the global South, rather than studied discreetly.
The story of the Chinese farm manager in Tanzania working for a state owned company (by Xiuli Xu, Gubo Qi and Xiaoyun Li) touched an emotional chord as he described the distance from home and the difficulties in communicating local problems with the firms’ headquarters in Beijing, exemplified by his horrified thought of having to explain why his workers were striking to his uncomprehending managers in China. This distance was also felt in relation to the local workers and the country at large, long hours on a farm followed by watching Chinese television in the evening repeated daily for three years meant little time for life outside of the compound. The chapter provided a fascinating ethnographic snapshot of the Chinese experience in Africa and a useful reminder of the human story that lies behind the aid figures and policies.
Chinese migration abroad is often characterised by the relative isolation of its citizens driven by cultural or language differences, the tendency to remain apart from host communities “helps” their acceptance in one sense, as they are seen as separate but also non-interfering or even “invisible” and therefore less of a threat, but the downside is that their lack of integration can be read as unfriendliness or aloofness, even superiority.
Richard Schiere gave an excellent overview of China’s impact on fragile states in Africa and how South-South collaboration fits in with the post-Busan development agenda. The importance of this cannot be understated in my view – given the importance that fragile/post-conflict states should now take in the international development agenda along with the rise of South-South programmes in overseas development. Reading about China’s impact in Rwanda, I was heartened to read the emphasis put on investments in telecommunications and manufacturing (not just natural resources). But then reminded of the potential downsides to Chinese aid such as how when Western aid cuts were just taking effect following accusations Rwanda was funding the violent M23 group in the neighbouring DRC the Chinese chipped in with USD 35 million in interest free loans, raising the spectre that African nations can play China and West off against each other in return for influence and aid.
Neil Renwick’s chapter on China’s role in Burma told an interesting tale of the power of civil society to block mining projects, in this case the suspension of the controversial Letpadaung copper mine, but also a wider point that the Chinese overseas aid agenda is under constant challenge, ranging from local civil society organisations to Western governments as it is so often viewed in the context of China’ go-global policy and the threat many believe that it poses to local and western interests.
The postponement of the copper mine also reflected a slowdown regarding Chinese aid activities in Burma. As Burma has opened up to the world it has become less reliant on China and criticism of the country has grown, leading to tensions between the two formerly close allies. Renwick believes that a greater sense of social/corporate responsibility and application of international best practice in aid by the Chinese would help relations, while it you cannot argue with that conclusion it could take a while for that reality to emerge. China’s moves toward these ideals have been slow, but according to some NGOs noticeable as Beijing realises it must present a more acceptable face to the world and be more respectful of local laws and norms.