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China in Africa myths and realities

In recent years, journalists and pundits in the West have looked on China’s economic engagement with Africa, including foreign aid, with growing alarm. An NYT op-ed a few years ago called China a “rogue donor,“ giving aid that is “nondemocratic in origin and nontransparent in practice, and its effect is typically to stifle real progress while hurting ordinary citizens.”

Other negative stories about China in Africa include China abetting genocide in Darfur by supplying arms in exchange for Sudanese oil; propping up corrupt government in Zimbabwe; swooping in to undo the anti-corruption work of the IMF or the World Bank in Angola or Nigeria with offers of no-strings-attached loans; and generally ignoring environmental, safety and labor standards on projects in Africa.

So the idea that China’s aid to Africa could be in any possible way better, more credible, or more effective than Western aid to Africa may be a hard sell. But Deborah Brautigam, author of the new book The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, argues that focusing only on the China threat makes us blind to the real opportunities Chinese engagement offers for African development.

Part of the problem, says Brautigam, is that there is very little information about what China is really doing in Africa, and in this vacuum, “myths sprang up and were rapidly accepted as facts.” Brautigam fills this void and dispels, or at least complicates, some commonly held beliefs about China in Africa.

In other areas she finds evidence to back up criticism of China’s Africa policies, but argues that we should not see China’s stance towards Africa as static; it is evolving and can sometimes be influenced by international pressure. Throughout, some of Brautigam’s best insights come from asking “compared to what?”:  The book seeks to compare Chinese aid to Western aid as it really is, not as we wish it were.

A few examples of China myths and partial truths:

1) China targets aid to African states with abundant natural resources and bad governments

Actually, China gives money to almost every single country in Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding only those that don’t acknowledge the One China policy. There is little evidence that China gives more aid to countries with more natural resources or specifically targets countries with worse governance. China is not alone in its interest in natural resources in Africa, and natural resources are not the primary motivating factor for Chinese aid: like all donors, US definitely included, China is motivated to give aid by a mix of political, commercial, and social/ideological factors.

2) The Chinese don’t hire Africans to work on their projects

This depends on how long a company has been working in Africa, and how easy it is to find appropriate local labor. Ultimately, it also depends on African governments themselves, who have the power to dictate what proportion of project staff must be local (as Angola and the DRC have done). Brautigam also points to the stark contrast in standard of living between Chinese workers and managers in Africa, who tend to live in extremely simple conditions, and Western advisors, who more typically live in expensive housing or hotels. While Western experts may be fewer, they cost their projects a lot more.

3) China outbids other companies by flouting social and environmental standards

This one’s true but evolving…Brautigam portrays China as “on a steep learning curve,” struggling with environmental and corporate social responsibility issues at home and abroad. She gives some evidence that China and Chinese companies are becoming increasingly sensitive to international perception on these issues and may be inching towards international standards.

This Wednesday (February 10) NYU’s Development Research Institute and the Wagner School are co-hosting a lunchtime seminar and book launch event with Professor Brautigam. Click here for more information and to RSVP.

UPDATE: This event has been cancelled due to inclement weather and will be rescheduled. People who have already RSVP’d will receive an email when a new time is confirmed.

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  1. avam wrote:

    oh, this looks really interesting. It was starting to seem that only views of china that focus on its limitations – with regard to international/african aid and involvement – were being discussed with any real vigour. A viewpoint that starts the argument with an acknowledgment, paraphrased – that we “should not see China’s stance towards Africa as static; it is evolving and can sometimes be influenced by international pressure. Throughout, some of Brautigam’s best insights come from asking “compared to what?” – is desperately needed to balance out the debate.

    Thanks for the book link. Def going to look this one out.

    ….This blog seems to be fast becoming the ‘oprah’ book club equivalent of the aid world 😉

    Posted February 9, 2010 at 6:05 am | Permalink
  2. Bernard Lowther wrote:

    In point #3, you mean flouting (not flaunting).

    Posted February 9, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  3. Laura Freschi wrote:

    Thanks for catching that, Bernard.

    Posted February 9, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  4. Anne wrote:

    Can anyone recommend further reading on this topic? Any key websites where can we find stats on China aid monies vs. other donors?

    So far Western donors have had a monopoly on the aid/ human rights discourse since they hold the purse strings…I would be fascinated to see what the aid landscape would look like in countries where alternative (and for once powerful, well-funded, legitimate) discourses can compete.

    Posted February 9, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  5. Chris O'Keefe wrote:

    I haven’t seen this book, but I’m skeptical that she actually has decent data on Chinese aid, since aid data from non-Western donors has been pretty spotty so far. The PLAID (soon to be rebranded “) database has some good coverage on non-Western (primarily Arab) donors as well, although I’m not sure how you’d test hypotheses about the role of donor discourse on aid allocation.

    As a starting point on the Arab donors, I’d start with the chapter in his 2003 book (The Pattern of Aid Giving). There are lots of citations there. Richard Manning and Ngaire Woods both have pieces on “emerging donors”, but given the paucity of data, these are as impressionistic as anything Brautigam is criticizing.

    Posted February 9, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  6. test wrote:

    Testing blog on blackberry, but great responses

    Posted February 9, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  7. T J Wheeler wrote:
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 5:30 am | Permalink
  8. Wow great article! Love the site im definitelyt gonna bookmark and subscribe for more great articls :)

    Posted February 16, 2010 at 10:14 pm | Permalink
  9. Posted February 16, 2010 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
  10. fourdayswisdom wrote:

    Thank goodness China is in a position to ignore all the preachy western critics, who have no personal experience of poverty, are blinded by their own liberal-democracy propapanda and have achieved almost zilch themselves for Africa in five decades. Ignore them, China, and go on building those roads, bridges, railways, airports, hospitals and ports. Chinese infrastructure could be the growth launchpad Africa has so long lacked.

    Posted February 18, 2010 at 5:01 am | Permalink

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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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