When I was in Ethiopia, one thing that struck me immediately was how big and visible the Chinese presence there is these days. While my travels were mainly restricted to the north of the country, virtually every road I came across that was under construction (and there were a lot of these) had Chinese staff overseeing the work. There were entire camps for workers in the road building trade, proudly flying a much larger Chinese flag alongside the Ethiopian one.
China scares a lot of people in development. Over the last two or three years, increasing attention has turned to the role of ‘new’ or ‘non-traditional’ donors. These labels are generally applied by what we would think of as the establishment donors: the US, UK, Scandinavian countries and the major multilaterals. They consider the ‘non-traditionals’ to be those donors who come from outside their cabal of policy voice: South Korea, India, China and Brazil being the most prominent. Given that some of the ‘establishment’ donors are relatively recent additions to the group of large-scale donors, and some of the ‘non-traditionals’ have long-standing bonds of mutual support with other developing countries I don’t think these labels really work. I find it more accurate to group donors along the lines of when they themselves developed. The first set of donors, centring around Europe and America, are the ‘first-generation’ of developers while the rest can broadly be classed as ‘second-generation’ developers. These two sets have different approaches to development.
China is the big one among the second generation donors, and just as China’s policy approach to increasing the power and wealth of its economy has a lot of Western policy makers and economists worried, so has its approach to its relatively new role in Africa begun worrying Western aid agencies. Generally, Chinese aid to Africa draws three major critiques from the first-generation donors. These are:
- China’s aid is too unconditional – they do not penalise poorly or repressively governed countries and do not require the same standards of fiscal and economic management prior to undertaking massive aid projects.
- Their self-interest is too great an influence on their aid – they focus too much on providing business to Chinese firms and in extracting resources for Chinese use, rather than the unalloyed betterment of the aid-recipient country.
- They are far too opaque a donor – they do not provide sufficient information on the volume, distribution and modes of disbursement of their aid. This raises worries that their aid is not very user-friendly. China, for example, does not appear in AidData’s data set as a donor.
Having worked for a few Governments that receive aid from China, and seen up close the good and bad of all donors’ practices, I’m beginning to feel that the first-generation donors are wrong about China. Not only are the some of the criticisms they make of China’s modus operandi either incorrect or hypocritical, it also seems that China’s presence as a donor has a positive consequences that are insufficiently remarked.