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Can the West learn from China in Africa?

Deborah Brautigam, Associate Professor in American University’s International Development Program, is author of the book The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (see our review here), and a new blog which digs into current China in Africa issues reported in the press. She recently spoke at NYU and answered a few of our questions.

Q:  It’s my reading of your book that you think Western donors could learn something from the way China behaves in Africa. What are the strengths of the Chinese way? Are there specific strategies or programs that the West should pay attention to?

A: As a donor, China’s way has several advantages. Take the way they operate. They rarely “poach” skilled staff from African ministries to work in their own offices. The focus on turnkey infrastructure projects is far simpler and doesn’t overstretch the weak capacity of many African governments faced with multiple meetings, quarterly reports, workshops, and so on. Their experts don’t cost much. In addition, their emphasis on local ownership is genuine, even if it leads to projects like a new government office building, a sports stadium, or a conference center. They understand something very fundamental about state-building — something that Pierre L’Enfant understood in 1791 when he teamed up with George Washington in newly independent America:  new states need to build buildings and dignity, not simply strive to end poverty.

But the Chinese also funded university scholarships, roads, bridges, mini-hydropower, and irrigation, for decades — when other donors had moved away from most of these sectors. And like Japan, they see nothing wrong with using subsidies to help foster investment by their own companies; this is seen as beneficial to both sides. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, Southeast Asia’s “miracle” was underwritten not only by good policies, but by Japanese investment, and Japanese aid was a partner in this. These investments boosted manufacturing prowess, attracting Japanese firms to go offshore. China’s engagement in Africa could have similar results in at least a handful of countries with receptive leadership. The Chinese avoid local embezzlement and corruption by very rarely transferring any cash to African governments. There is almost no budget support, no adjustment or policy loans. Aid is disbursed directly to Chinese companies who do the projects. The resource-backed infrastructure loans work the same way. Of course those companies themselves might give kickbacks, as we’ve seen in Namibia.

Q: How about vice versa? Does China need to learn from the West?

A: Beijing’s stubborn refusal to be transparent about official aid and other flows of development finance has created headaches for the Chinese that could have been avoided, in some cases simply by publishing information already being collected in China. The OECD members could teach China something here. The West and Japan are also far more sensitive to social and cultural differences and power relations — resettlement issues, land tenure rights, women’s role in production. In general, the Chinese — like the World Bank decades ago — simply depend on local governments to sort these things out. That’s one of the downsides of genuine local ownership. China also needs a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to provide a framework for moving against corruption and kickbacks overseas.

Q:  Is Chinese aid more effective than Western aid? Do we have enough information to answer this question?

A: More effective at what? To answer this question we really have to know: what is the real purpose of aid?  If we simply “follow the money” from the US, for example, we can see that national security (including resource security) and diplomacy appear to be far more important than reducing poverty or fostering growth. That said, our understanding of the impact of Chinese aid on development is very, very weak and highly anecdotal. There simply is no data. Until recently, Chinese aid was quite modest and had only local impact. It’s still not very extensive. I suspect, as with Western aid, that it will be more effective in conditions/countries with more developmental elites: Mauritius as opposed to Mauritania, for example. On the other hand, Chinese business engagement is already having a tremendous impact. Huawei and ZTE are transforming the cellular telephone landscape across Africa, for example. But this is not aid.

Q:  China has been heavily criticized for its close relationship to the government in Sudan. Do you think the Western perception of Chinese motives in Sudan is accurate? What kind of role do you see China playing in Sudan?

A: Al-Bashir is widely (and correctly) reviled for his role in trying to crush a rebellion in Darfur using extremely brutal force. Chinese aid to Sudan is relatively small, but their engagement (in a joint venture with Sudan) in oil provides the bulk of the revenues that allow al-Bashir to finance the war, and they have plenty of business. As the New York Times recently reported, in the north, Sudan’s economy is booming. The Chinese have also blocked and/or watered down Security Council resolutions on Darfur, allowing their focus on sovereignty (and their concern about oil supplies) to trump the newer norm of the “responsibility to protect”. Chinese arms continue to flow into the country (probably legally: Sudan is under a UN arms embargo, but it is a limited one). Sudan also has its own arms factories (built by the Chinese) which makes it hard to tell where arms actually originate. All of these provide ample fodder for the critique of China’s role.

But several things are not widely reported.

  • First, China’s role in Sudan has changed over the past several years. They were crucial in getting Khartoum to accept a joint UN/African Union peacekeeping force (one, by the way, authorized by the UN, but not funded as generously as originally pledged). They allowed al-Bashir’s case to be sent to the International Criminal Court for prosecution for war crimes (as Security Council members, they could have vetoed this). And as noted both by President Bush’s special envoy, Andrew Natsios, and President Obama’s special envoy, Scott Gration, Beijing is now working together with the US government and other major powers in developing joint strategies to bring the Sudanese government and the rebels to the negotiating table. As China-watcher Erica Downs put it, the West and China are now coordinating their “good cop” and “bad cop” roles in trying to end the crisis.
  • Second, there is no doubt that Beijing could have moved much sooner, and much more effectively, to become part of the solution. But they never held all the keys to solving the Darfur tragedy. In making a tactical decision to focus on China as the lynch pin to solving Darfur’s crisis, and using the 2008 Olympics as the pressure point, activists let the other major powers off the hook. To end the violence, Darfur needs a peace agreement, and that requires all the parties to participate in negotiations. The West has not yet been able to get all the major rebel groups to show up to start talking.
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  1. Justin Kraus wrote:

    In general I am consistently surprised by the lack of knowledge that Western development “experts” have of how the most recently developed economies, namely the so-called Asian Tigers, did so. This ignorance is really quite tragic considering Western failure in Africa over the last 50 years compared to the successes of Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, China, and now Vietnam in the same period. The lack of intellectual curiosity is really astounding. While Western development experts bicker over how to stimulate economic growth (the by now stale searcher vs. planner debate) they consistently fail to look for guidance from those countries that have actually been doing the growing in the last half-century.

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 5:32 am | Permalink
  2. Scott Andrews wrote:

    This idea certainly doesn’t jive with my original assumptions of China’s involvement in Africa, though I am willing to squint my eyes and keep an open mind. I am sure there are cases where Chinese Direct investment benefits a community and other times it goes terribly wrong. I am now interested in picking up Brautigam’s book.

    Keep it up,


    Posted April 19, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  3. On Huawei, it’s worth looking at the analysis of Rebecca MacKinnon – – and others on the potentially repressive effects of China’s provision of digital and mobile technologies to African governments.

    Something that might help round out the debate on this from a focus purely on infrastructure is the analysis being done by Professor Fackson Banda, among others, to unearth China’s policies in the media development sector (see Fackson pulls out some really key questions in terms of how this involvement might impact on the nature of African journalism and media production in the long-term, but one of the more troubling aspects for media pluralism in Africa relates to what he calls “ideological expurgation”:

    “A careful analysis of Chinese involvement in African media demonstrates that China is actively engaged in expurgating or expunging those Euro-American views of it which it considers inimical to its foreign policy in Africa. The context of such Chinese ideological commitment in Africa is both its anti-colonial or anti-imperial history in Africa and its continued rejection of the equally ideological commitment of Western countries in Africa. For example, China is opposed to linking aid to the kinds of liberal-democratic values that Western nations and multilateral financial institutions insist upon: free markets; human rights; good governance; environmental protection; etc. As an attempt at asserting its nationalism and internationalism, China is involved in an international campaign to de-legitimise Taiwan’s and Tibet’s separatist ambitions (Meidan 2006: 73, 90; Wild 2006). When Beijing launched Focac in October 2000, the first summit was astutely held from 9-11 October to coincide with Taiwan’s national day held on 10 October. A related aspect is its ideological justification of what it sees as its democratic reforms in Tibet. For example, Malawi’s Daily Times newspaper ran a 12-page supplement on 6 April 2009 entitled “50 years of democratic reform in Tibet”.”

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  4. George wrote:

    “In addition, their emphasis on local ownership is genuine, even if it leads to projects like a new government office building, a sports stadium, or a conference centre.”

    Sports Stadium, OK, whatever. But the rest?

    I worked in a country where Chinese funding contributed to an absolutely stunning, palatial new parliament building. Yes, of course they recieved all the benefits of “ownership” – quick permit provision, they never seemed to have problems at the border, and I have no doubt that when complete the building will be busy and full.

    For all their faults, what western donors have to learn from this I’ve no idea….

    Interesting article though.

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  5. Dan Kyba wrote:

    Three observations:
    1) When I was in Kiribati in 2008, the very pretty former mainland China embassy building stood empty. Taiwan had won the ‘check book diplomacy’ battle and was accorded diplomatic recognition. In 24 hrs mainland China closed its embassy and cancelled its projects, some of which were taken over by Taiwan. It is always and always will be an imperfect world and realpolitik is part of the mix.
    2) A Canadian oil company, Talisman, was criticised by a number of groups for being involved in Sudan due to that country’s dismal human rights record. By demanding it pull out of Sudan, Talisman was expected at its own cost, to make a public goods investment (human rights) for which it would not receive any benefit (cue the Chinese) – see pt. one.
    3) The ideological cold war may be over but the resource war continues. The use of false front NGOs and what Lenin called ‘useful idiots’ remains part of our public discourse as interests try to capture lucrative patents or natural resource sources – see pt. two.

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  6. Diane Bennett wrote:

    It’s disappointing that your comments on Sudan are limited to Bashir and Darfur, since the Chinese wreaked more havoc previously in South Sudan, where the oil is, than in Darfur. The SPLA fought the civil war for years with captured Chinese arms. Also, almost no one calls the Southerners “rebels” since the CPA was signed in 2005, legitimizing the SPLM’s role. Thanks for your book, your talk here at NYU and this follow-up.

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  7. Bob K. wrote:

    ” new states need to build buildings and dignity, not simply strive to end poverty.”

    So the point of aid is to make regimes feel better about themselves, not increase per capita income of the citizens or some other targeted goal? Isn’t part of the aid critique that much of official aid actually goes to curry favor with authoritarian governments, rather than with any higher purpose in mind?

    If the goal of development assistance is solely to make regimes feel like we love them, then yes we ought to spend millions to erect [Insert authoritarian leader’s name] Conference Centers in each capital in the developing world. If that is the case, then lets not play games about “development”–this is soft diplomacy (e.g., bribery), nothing more, nothing less.

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  8. philipp wrote:

    Sadly her blog seems to be blocked in China. Can’t access it from Beijing.

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  9. Onni Milne wrote:

    I have difficulty with the learning ‘how to’ from the success of South Asian Tigers comment. My understanding of the recent success in Ireland was that it was financed through fraud. Iceland was a hot spot financially as well and ended up totally bankrupt thanks to Wall Street wheeling and dealing. I suggest the success in Asia comes through bribery and corruption that is covered up to give us a false impression of effectiveness. I have no doubt that the regime that treats Tibetans and minorities as subhuman thinks little of doing the same elsewhere.

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 8:21 pm | Permalink
  10. Justin Kraus wrote:

    Sadly the open hostility in the comments of this post to the idea that we in the West could possibly learn anything from China or the “Asian tigers” is typical of the views of most Western development agencies. It looks as if we have not left behind as much we thought the Western-centric, arrogant cultural imperialism of previous generations. What Africans and Asians have known all along, and continue to experience, we Westerners still can’t seem admit.

    Posted April 19, 2010 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  11. Duncan Green wrote:

    ‘The Chinese avoid local embezzlement and corruption by very rarely transferring any cash to African governments. There is almost no budget support, no adjustment or policy loans. Aid is disbursed directly to Chinese companies who do the projects.’

    Ah right – so tied aid is good when China does it, but bad (see your more recent post) when the US does it? Interesting.

    Posted April 20, 2010 at 1:53 am | Permalink
  12. Deborah Brautigam wrote:

    On China’s tied aid: untying aid would be “win-win” for the Chinese, as their firms would probably still win most of the infrastructure contracts. Chinese firms are winning the majority of infrastructure contracts funded by the African Development Bank, and are the largest single country winning World Bank construction contracts in Africa. But this will take time, as it did in the West/Japan, where tying aid to “our” firms was long been used to justify aid budgets to parliaments.

    Posted April 20, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  13. Laura Freschi wrote:


    I don’t see such a contradiction. First of all, you are citing Deborah Brautigam’s opinion in your first quote, and then referring to a piece written by me on the other. More importantly, though, I don’t think either piece is making a definitive statement that covers the use of tied aid in all cases for all donors.

    I think it’s legitimate to explore what policies a non-traditional donor like China is using in Africa and what if anything we might learn from them, though I would definitely stop short of the position that tied aid is “good” because China does it!

    On the tied aid piece from today (, I do think that the requirements of US legislation for American food aid in particular create wasteful practices that place the interests of the American farm lobby and US shipping conglomerates over the needs of the poor. I have seen less conclusive evidence on the effects of allowing some small percentage of technical assistance to remain tied; there may be more room for debate there.


    Posted April 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  14. wei wrote:

    If you only read the so called “main stream media”, you may never know that Sudan is among the fastest growing economies in Africa in the past decade; a rare case of self sufficient on petroleum supply in oil-rich African countries; self sufficient on food production, telecommunication, and soon to be on power generation. Sudan need no sanction but a peace environment for development.

    Posted April 23, 2010 at 1:17 am | Permalink
  15. Rogério Farias wrote:

    Dear Easterly, I am not sure about the arguments above. I live in Bamako (Mali) and the Chinese have just concluded the building of a “gift” to the city: a concrete park with a huge fountain. They just forgot that it is forbidden the use of fountains here — as in several countries in Africa bourdering the Sahara — due to the lack of water. That is just an exemple in several about how the Chinese government is more prone to top-down aid than Western donors, something you usually do not seen to like.

    Posted April 23, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] on AidWatch, Laura Freschi offers a great interview with Brautigam, titled Can the West learn from China in Africa? (Yes.) There’s a lot condensed into their exchange, but here are a few highlights. For one, […]

  2. […] — terence @ 8:47 am Tags: Aid, China, Watching Aid Watch Over at AidWatch Laura Freschi interviews Deborah Brautigam. The subject: what western aid donors can learn from China’s aid to Africa. [Freschi]: It’s […]

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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