A question is being debated among Western politicians and development experts, African leaders and researchers, and others about the real intent and value of Chinese aid to African countries.
The rapid rise and wide geographical coverage of this aid in most African countries are creating anxiety among the traditional donors to Africa. Traditional donors are defined as those donors active in Africa before China’s rise as a major global aid giver. These would include donors from the Western countries of Europe, U.S., Japan, Australia, the Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund) and the United Nations System’s donor Agencies. I spend some time in DR Congo each year and one cannot escape notice of the change that Chinese aid is bringing to that country in terms of national road infrastructure, rehabilitation of bridges, Kinshasa urban renewal, hospital and clinic construction, the Kinshasa stadium, etc. The example of DRC is repeated across the African continent.
In many African countries, Chinese aid is delivering trunk roads, hospitals, railways, factories, energy production companies, urban renewal infrastructures and sporting stadiums. The landscape and the economic and social infrastructures of Africa are literally changing overnight. Admittedly, corrupt leaders are taking advantage of these activities and are enriching themselves illicitly, but the populations are benefitting from the services provided by these investments. You go to any African country receiving Chinese aid, and you will see development signs all around. People are enjoying this economic renewal.
China currently provides about US $15 billion annually to African countries, mostly in project aid. This amount represents three times the amount of combined Western aid to the African continent. Such a disparity in aid volume is fueling the debate about China’s role in Africa and is at root of the apparent jealousy among the traditional aid givers. The jealousy is often expressed through intense criticism of the Chinese aid as being “toxic” and indifferent to governance and human rights issues plaguing Africa (D. Brautigam, The Dragon’s Gift, Oxford Univ. Press).
China’s critics forget that the traditional donors have been operating in Africa for more than half a century with no visible progress on infrastructure construction, good governance and respect for human rights. Of course, the proverbial answer is to say that two wrongs don’t make a right. It does mean, however, that traditional donors have no credibility when criticizing China’s political and moral correctness in Africa. The poor performance of the African economies and the lack of effectiveness of traditional aid over 50 years are a shared responsibility of both the aid givers and receivers.
One key reason, I believe, for this failure is the high maintenance cost of the expatriate personnel of the traditional donors. Non-governmental organizations, once deemed as a cost-effective alternative to foreign aid implementation, have proved as costly and corrupt as host government and donor structures. In fact, one can argue that the traditional donors are responsible for creating the current impasse in development in Africa by propping up and helping corrupt and incompetent dictators stay in power, all in the name of protecting their “interests,” a situation that unfortunately continues until today.
In contrast, China is more open and transparent about its policies in Africa. Nor is it hypocritical about the motives of its aid and the methods of delivering that aid. As everyone knows, China needs huge amounts of raw materials to grow its economy and it sees Africa as a source of such materials for which it is willing to exchange economic goods and infrastructure construction with the continent. Raw-material-based bilateral contracts with African governments and companies are their preferred method of delivering the aid, and they hope that these so-called win-win raw-materials contracts will result in both sides gaining something good.
Turning to the efficacy of aid to Africa, the traditional donors have demonstrably failed to generate tangible development progress in Africa after 50 years of operations. Poverty and unemployment continue to ravage African societies. Nowadays, one hears bitter complaints among the African populations and leaders about the ineffectiveness of traditional aid and its high administrative cost. Traditional donors blame Africans for not making good use of their aid as the principal reason for the failure. One can have a long debate to determine the responsibility of each side for the failure, but traditional donors are likely to blame it on the Africans since no one wants to take ownership of failure.
The traditional donors may complain ad infinitum about the Chinese in Africa, but as long as China is delivering these visible signs of development, Africans will continue to embrace China. The only way traditional donors can convince the Africans that their aid does better than the Chinese’s is by delivering results on the ground, and not by criticizing China’s activities. The credibility of traditional donors on development in Africa has long been called into question, and playing the spoiler role with respect to China aid will only deepen the dissatisfaction of the Africans with them.
So far, Chinese aid is good for Africa. Loso K. Boya