Coaxing the dragon: Why China should join the great aid debate

How much attention is being paid to China's growing role in the global humanitarian space? Not enough perhaps, but the wariness cuts both ways. James Wan, fellow at the Wits University China-Africa Reporting Project in South Africa, argues it's time for China to get its hands dirty in the great aid debate.  

There appears to be an elephant in the room. Or rather a dragon. Amid the countless meetings, summits and conferences being held around the world to determine the post-2015 development agenda and the future of humanitarian aid, no one is talking much about the growing role of China. Despite accounting for one-fifth of the world's population, Beijing has been little more than a wallflower at the global party.

Considering its size, its evolving position in the global aid landscape, and the fact that it single-handedly lifted half a billion people out of poverty between 1990 and 2005, China has not had a significant enough role in the discussions.

There have been a handful of conferences and papers from China but, as academic Kenneth King has noted, these have often been initiated by Northern partners not Beijing. Meanwhile, China doesn’t appear interested in joining the #ReShapeAid debate.  It seems happy to observe but wary of getting its hands dirty; and Chinese researchers do not seem nearly as engrossed in the post-2015 agenda as their Western counterparts.

The caution cuts both ways. In the West, China's international aid is often portrayed as inherently suspect, particularly when it comes to Africa. It stands accused of neo-colonialism for its huge resource deals, of being a "rogue donor" for tying aid to Chinese goods and contractors, and of propping up African dictators with its lack of conditions, and transparency and absence of concern about fundamental human rights.

From East to West

Some of these criticisms are well-founded. Some are based on exaggerations and misunderstandings. But amid the calls for China to follow the West's examples of best practice, the point is often missed that there is plenty the West could learn from China too. For example, China has been sending dedicated medical teams to Africa since the 1960s and was one of the first countries to send hundreds of medical workers in response to the current Ebola crisis. It has trained tens of thousands of Africans in all things from agricultural science to economics, and it has built countless miles of roads, pipelines and railways on the continent.

Unlike the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were drafted by a handful of UN staffers in a basement, their successors, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, are meant to take into account a wide diversity of views and perspectives. But for all the rhetoric about universality and inclusivity, the post-2015 agenda has been criticised by civil society groups for privileging a narrow band of voices with discussions largely driven by the Global North. 

A stronger Chinese voice would, by definition, help correct this specific imbalance. But more significantly, China's whole approach to aid offers an alternative to the prescriptive Western impulse.

In contrast to a sometimes blunt, one-size-fits-all, donor-recipient strategy advocated by many international donors, China typically emphasises a relationship of partnership. It calls for policy experimentation and flexibility rather than pursuing rigid goals and strategies and emphasises country ownership whereby recipient governments assess their own needs and priorities.

A fresh approach

While China's aid to Africa is viewed suspiciously by some in Western capitals, many African leaders praise Beijing’s approach. Rwanda's Paul Kagame, for example, has criticised Western aid, contrasting it with the way in which "the Chinese bring Africa what it needs", while many others, such as Uganda's former agricultural minister Victoria Sekitoleko, have suggested that: "Different from our traditional partners, like the European countries, Chinese companies want to listen to us and make our requirements the priority in the cooperation."

It's a more 'horizontal' mode of engagement, often viewed as more effective and respectful than the West's typically top-down approach.
China's aid model is very far from perfect, but in some ways it is actually very similar to the Rio+20 Conference's agreement that the SDGs be "universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities". Rather than just wariness and criticism, perhaps there is a leaf to be taken from the Sino Aid playbook?

Framing China's aid to Africa as somehow being in competition with Western aid is not particularly helpful. We risk missing the point that each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. Collaboration and cooperation are likely to yield much more than rivalry – certainly from the perspective of recipients.

China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping once declared that China should "keep a low profile and never take the lead" in world affairs. But Beijing is increasingly flexing its muscles in global politics and economics. At a time of increasingly complex and expensive humanitarian interventions, China should be encouraged also to take a more active role in discussions about the future of aid.