The theories behind international aid are constantly changing, debated and refined.  These programs and processes have clear historical foundations and influences.  From the Western perspective developmental assistance started with the successes of the post-WWII Marshall Plan. This astoundingly effective strategy to rebuild post war Europe was expanded to the global south with limited success.  Through trial and error, concepts such as sustainability, local ownership and capacity building became increasingly ubiquitous as the Marshall Plan’s triumphs were unable to be recreated.

Dr. Deborah Brautigam’s book, “The Dragon’s Gift” takes an in depth look at Chinese engagement in Africa.  Dr. Brautigam, a leading expert on Africa-China relations, spent years working in China and throughout Africa. She is a professor and director of the International Development Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Generations of Engagement

With a sovereign history not centered in European historical contexts, Chinese international aid and engagement grew through independent experiences. Chief among them is their own development familiarity and relations with regional power Japan. Due to Japan’s lack of natural resources, infrastructure in exchange for raw material agreements were commonplace and spurred Chinese industrialization.  From these successful firsthand experiences, China began to look outward, bringing its unique development model with it.

China’s attitude towards foreign aid was first outlined by Zhou Enlai in 1964 during an official African tour which produced the “Eight Principles for China’s Aid to Foreign Countries.” These concepts then highly influenced Zhao Ziyang’s “Four Principles of Economic and Technological Cooperation.” Of central importance is equality, mutual benefit and respecting sovereignty. This outlook has fostered greater regard for African leaders, referred by the Chinese as partners.  Dr. Brautigam believes in a continent that experienced harsh colonial rule, an attitude that is highly welcome.

China’s approach has been applauded by many African leaders and produced highly successful projects.  This model has also created several faux pas in the eyes of Western development experts. These include the construction of a 60,000 seat national football stadium in Tanzania. The stadium came at a 56 million USD cost and is arguably not the most pressing need for the Tanzanian people. Despite suggestions from the Chinese that the resources be allocated more efficiently, the Tanzanian decision to move forward was ultimately respected.

Dr. Brautigam describes Beijing’s nonnegotiable element for receiving Chinese assistance as following the One China Policy.  This policy states that countries seeking diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) must break official relations with the Republic of China (ROC). Currently the vast majority of African countries have embassies in Beijing, as opposed to Taipei.  Of these African countries with formal ties to the People’s Republic, all enjoy some level of aid.

China’s inflexibility regarding this policy in Africa has reaped rewards.  Most notably the PRC regaining their permanent UN security council position in 1971.  This change passed with 76 votes, of these 26 were African.  China is aware that by providing support in the 1960s, African countries then voted overwhelmingly to expel Taiwan.

China’s engagement in Africa has had a strong focus on infrastructure. This was a large emphasis of the international community prior to the Millennium development goals shifting attention to eight areas including food security, women’s empowerment and climate change among others.  The desperate need for quality infrastructure in Africa is still a reality.  Currently only nine African countries have fewer than 50 electrical power cuts a year. China is filling the necessary void in electrical power along with roads and telecommunications.

Addressing Sensationalism

Dr. Brautigam masterfully dispels many common myths regarding Chinese aid while acknowledging areas of improvement. Chief among them is the belief that Chinese aid is solely a grab for resources. Continually it is shown that the Chinese presence in Africa spans many sectors including health, agriculture and infrastructure, and has a broad geographic focus incorporating all African countries respecting the One China Policy, along with deep historical roots.  Logistical issues surround shipping natural resources to China, to send money back is more commonplace.  China does have a strong presence in resource rich countries, but to describe this growing, expansive and multifaceted relationship as merely a need for resources is, at best, a partial picture.

The general notion that China props dictators, such as Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, through their economic presence, is also called into question. The Western track record of imposing economic sanctions is shaky at best.  Dr. Brautigam shares countless examples of sanctions not alleviating human rights abuses or adverting armed conflict.  Furthermore, while China could be more aggressive in twisting arms, their economic engagement is only a piece of a complex puzzle and hardly Zimbabwe or Sudan’s only revenue stream. Dr. Brautigam shows the presences of other entities conducting business including non-Chinese companies in many of these reported problem areas.

According to Dr. Brautigam Chinese aid is not flawless.  The concept of tied aid is more common than in Western countries.  This caveat states that a certain portion of funding must be spent in the donor country, normally on labor or materials. This arrangement has been shown to be inefficient, potentially harmful to host nations and increasingly viewed as antiquated.

Despite improvements, issues surrounding social and environment standards are rife.  These problems are often the result of Chinese ignorance of local labor regulations, lack of cultural belief in corporate social responsibility or a blend of the two. Efforts are being made to conceptualize this and labor laws are being translated into Chinese but the gap remains large.

Questions Remain

Through quotes from both African and Chinese leaders, stereotypes of Western aid being paternalistic, dismissing African leaders and coming with a plethora of attached conditions is a common theme, although Dr. Brautigam never analyzes if these descriptions are accurate. Readers may question if this portrayal is a relic of the past, a present complaint or merely an inaccurate over generalization.  Lastly, the prospect these conditions could be valuable or at times necessary is not examined.

Dr. Brautigam paints Chinese and Western aid on both extremes of the internal interference spectrum.  Can the key to positive development outcomes lie in the middle?  What if African leaders were engaged from the start, recognized for their immense local knowledge and aid negotiated through shared decision making? Could this egalitarian process impose fair and transparent regulations to everyone’s benefit?

While controversial, it is clear that Chinese engagement in Africa will continue to grow.  This involvement cannot simply be categorized as good, bad, or a grab for resources.  Like any aid model we see strengths and weaknesses. Inevitably changes and adjustments will occur over time.  What we have is developmental aid with Chinese characteristics.

By BILL PIERCE, USCNPM Contributor, October 4, 2016.

(This commentary is part of a series summarizing prominent books on China in Africa)