Members can sign in here.

About the Author

Elsje Fourie
Doctoral candidate (Bath, United Kingdom / Trento, Italy)

I'm a South African PhD student living in Italy and the UK, and looking at African perspectives on China and India's development. Before undertaking my doctoral studies, I did some work on development and conflict resolution in Japan, Indonesia and Northern Ireland. I'll be doing some field research in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya this summer, so hopefully this project will be a chance to combine many of my professional and academic interests.


How is China Changing the Way we Think about Aid to Africa?

Published 26th March 2010 - 16 comments - 5335 views -

I was in Oxford last week for a seminar very closely related to my own interests, titled “China and Africa: Implications for OECD Donors”.  China in Africa is an absolutely huge topic right now, and I had just come from a similar talk in London where I had had to sit on the floor because the hall was so packed with embassy officials, journalists, executives and aid experts by the time I arrived.  But this second discussion—led by Adrian Davies, a senior official in the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID)—was particularly thought-provoking. 

DFID’s budget for 2010/2011 is £7.8 billion, making it one of the largest aid donors in the world.  Much of this goes to Africa, where the Department has projects in 23 countries.  Yet DFID and other Western donors are increasingly having to deal with a fairly new but powerful player on the African continent: China.  China’s development assistance to Africa is still quite small compared to that of Europe and the US, but it has increased astronomically in the past few years—China is cancelling debt, giving $10 billion in cheap loans over the next three years, and investing heavily in African infrastructure.  

Sounds good, right?  Well, yes and no.  The debate over what this means for Africa’s development is loud, big and emotional.  It’s a debate I might explore in full in a future post.  But let’s see what DFID has to say on the matter, and how it views the changing dynamics in Africa:

One of the biggest consequences of these developments, says Mr. Davies, is that “we can no longer speak amongst ourselves”.  For the first time, Western aid agencies are having to engage with an important donor who might have radically different views and policies on aid.  This has not always been easy, he admits, but DFID has decided to participate in “constructive engagement” with China, rather than “whinging”. 

China’s aid tends to come in the form of roads, railways, buildings, wells, whereas the West has moved away from that to fund less tangible projects such as support for civil society, or institition-building.  This provides Africa with “the best of both worlds”, according to Mr. Davies: “it’s an issue of comparative advantage—China is good at physical infrastructure, we’re good at social infrastructure”.  DFID and China should be partners, he feels, rather than rivals.  If Chinese aid is less transparent than Western aid, and sometimes strengthens corrupt and undemocratic governments, “this is a problem Africans have to solve for themselves”. 

The last thing I’d want is for international development to be seen as a zero-sum game.  And it’s great to see Africa so high up on the agenda after decades of neglect.  But I left the talk slightly concerned.  Western aid to Africa is riddled with problems, but after more than half a century of development aid, it has also learned quite a few lessons—and learned them the hard way:

  • There was a time when traditional donors (Japan included), wouldn’t lend money any money for infrastructure unless the donors used their construction companies for the job.  This was rightly criticised, and loans became less tied

  • There was a time when Western donors dropped in, built bridges, and forgot to ask whether this was really what communities wanted.  This was rightly criticised, and initiatives to engage with women’s groups, the poor, and the vulnerable began to accompany aid programmes as a matter of course. 

  • There was a time when it was difficult to figure out where Western aid money was going and who it was helping.  This was rightly criticised, and so partnerships such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATS) were launched. 

  • There was a time when donors did not ask how aid was affecting human rights, state institutions, and the environment in recipient countries.  This was rightly criticised, and approaches such as Do No Harm were born.

In short, international development aid has improved, however much further we have left to go.  This has been due not to altruism, but to pressure from Western civil society and recipients themselves, as well as to a recognition that indiscriminate, untransparent aid simply does not work.  It would be a great pity if China’s current style of aid—still itself in the process of developing into a concrete set of policies—convinced Western donors to roll back their own hard-won advances.  Some of the worst critics of the West’s mistakes are those now defending China from exactly the same charges.

There is one other, potentially more positive way in which China’s new role in Africa might be changing our views on development.  To China, trade is better than aid—and many in Africa agree.  As Mr. Davies puts it: “don’t ever call China a donor, as it prefers to call itself a partner in development.”  We’re going to be hearing more about this in coming months and years, and this one is a debate worth having.  Guido’s already made an interesting contribution in this regard.  Perhaps trade is really a better answer than aid.  But even then, it will need to be transparent, equitable and regulated—no matter who is Africa’s development partner du jour.

Category: Aid | Tags:


  • Bart Knols on 26th March 2010:

    Great contribution, Elsje. I wonder though, how many Africans took part in the Oxford seminar you attended. Dambisa Moyo, in her book ‘Dead Aid’ sums it up nicely: 80% of Africans when asked whether they prefer Europeans or Chinese to be involved in the development of their countries chose for the Eastern Giant. Ultimately this voice will be the one that determines where we will be heading…

  • Kevin Rennie on 27th March 2010:

    China’s fast developing interest in and support for African countries was evident at Copenhagen. It was clearly reciprocated. Japan has sought support for their whaling industry by courting Pacific countries.

  • Elsje Fourie on 27th March 2010:

    Thanks Bart. Well, there were a handful of Africans at the two meetings, and one expressed admiration for China’s unconditional aid, while another was really negative about China’s human rights record on the continent.  So it really depends on who you ask. Thanks for the info on the Moyo book - I’d be curious to know whether she interviewed ordinary people (ie not just elites), and in which countries.  The latest survey I saw (by Horta) showed a big divergence between the two groups, with people on the street being far more negative. Then there’s the fact that China is quite a new actor, so opposition hasn’t really had time to build yet the way it has towards the West.  But I definitely agree that African voices are crucial in the debate.

  • Elsje Fourie on 27th March 2010:

    Hi Kevin.  Yes, part of this is definitely lobbying for political allies, as Japan and all other countries do.  I guess the crucial issue, though, is how far are willing to go to make friends…

  • Hanna Clarys on 27th March 2010:

    This is a really interesting topic and very important to discuss. Africa has to be aware of China’s interests in the region. Chinese investments in Congo for example seem as fantastic opportunities for Congo’s development but several questions remain:
    - China has revitalized the quest for natural resources in Congo, making the prices rise, but at the same time has ensured itself from access to resources at a very low price.
    - the benefits China gets out of its investment in infrastructure will be much higher than the investments itself.
    - within this joint venture between the two countries, Congo will only have 1/3 of the votes.
    - the Congolese state will miss out on a huge amount of public revenues because China has obtained fiscal and custom exemptions that were never seen before in history.

    Anyway, all I wanted to make clear with this comment is that there is a lot more to tell about this topic, and I’m looking forward to that!
    (Great post by the way).

  • Daniel on 27th March 2010:

    China in Africa will definitely be hot topic in the future… But after all China is not doing so much else than what we have done “- the Congolese state will miss out on a huge amount of public revenues because China has obtained fiscal and custom exemptions that were never seen before in history” - How many western countries are not active in different kind of tax free zones, where they maybe give employment but neither human rights, nor public revenues.

    And maybe China’s hunger to give reminds us that handing out gifts is also a way to rule… I don’t think that charity has been the biggest driving orce behind western aid to the developing world, either, even iff much probably is better now than it was 40 years ago.

  • Elsje Fourie on 28th March 2010:

    Hi Hanna - glad to hear you enjoyed it.  Thanks also for the info on the Congo-China deal.  I agree that a lot of what you say sounds worrying. 
    Daniel, you seem to contradict yourself by saying that China reminds us we can rule through gifts, and then saying the West does this anyway.  And yes, China is not doing anything Europe didn’t once do in Africa, but that’s not enough of a defense for me - especially since China itself is very hard on the West for its colonial past.

  • Daniel on 28th March 2010:

    I might contradict myself a little, yes, probably because the topic is very complex :/ I have very little understanding for those who wants to more or less abolish foreign aid from the west to the developing world. We definitely have a responsibility that we must take.

    On the other hand, it is hard to not see that foreign aid has often been a kind of continued colonialism. After all colonialism was motivated as a project of helping poor countries to become civilised.

    When it comes to China, it is very easy to see other reasons behind the aid, like the need for natural resources for example. What I meant is that watching China casts light also on our history of aid. What were the real motivation behind our projects?

    All in all, I guess it is a good thing that there are many different actors present, hopefully competition and discussion will bring out the best in all of us.

  • Johan Knols on 29th March 2010:

    For a more comprehensive article on China’s aid to Africa, Latin America and South East Asia:

  • Johan Knols on 29th March 2010:

    The clickable link:

  • Elsje Fourie on 29th March 2010:

    Thanks for your reply, Daniel.  Yes, definitely agree with you that this is a complicated issue and one where this kind of discussion can help us all sort out what it’s going to mean for development. Also, a good point about the fact that China’s emergence can stop us from becoming too complacent about our past and present aid activities.

    Johan, thanks for the link - looks useful.

  • Johan Knols on 30th March 2010:

    Unfortunately there is also a big downside to Chinese Aid:

  • Sungyeon Park on 09th April 2010:

    I remember BBC World Service documentary on China and Africa’ Economy Relation.

    What African executive complained ‘China reached their hand to Africa apparently, hiding their real motive but showing kind of mercy in means of Developing Aid, but do you know why? China want our natural resources nothing more than apathy. And they will use them for their own economy development, not for Africa. We are just small puppet of China, extracted our resources for China.’

    The truth is that China is still developing country and relatively poor in individual base, but China has big economy and political power.

    What we are seeing China’s move isn’t so much different with the past Western countries motive (now they are some having set back behind China).

    It is very difficult task to commission on Developing Aid about how effectively transfer donors’fund can be used really for Africa’s Development.

    Many Experts like Jeffrey D. Sachs has assert the increase of Developing Aid, account 0.7% of GNI in Developed Countries.

    But see the US’S miserable role on this including many other issue like Climate Change, this is just one example to show what has been changed-merely.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 13th May 2010:

    Hi Elsje,
    I had missed your post. Sorry about that. It’s very interesting.

    In my personal opinion China’s presence in Africa has been triggering some scary dynamics for several years, especially as its new “colonization” started very quietly and was already widely spread when experts started studying it.

    Some years ago I was researching for a paper on the US and China’s economic presence in Botswana and in Zimbabwe and I bumped into two sets of documents. You probably already know them but I found the comparison between them extremely interesting. On the one hand there was the AGOA (the 2006 US African Growth and Opportunity Act), warning US firms against doing business in countries like Zimbabwe where democracy standards where too low. On the other hand there was the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, based on a reciprocal policy of non-interference when it came to internal political issues.

    I read China has again defended its position in Africa after it signed a deal for a giant cement plant in South Africa:

    This happened today and did not get a lot of attention, as usual. Which is weird, as financial news from South Africa is now particularly sensitive and apparently China is the country’s biggest trade partner. Also, this is China’s biggest investment in South Africa…

    Again, we may be underestimating the dimensions of this phenomenon, although I am not entirely sure how to judge it. China is not a great example when it comes to democratic practices, and it scares its trade competitors because of its growth rate - partly due to labour exploitation and a lack of regulations. But when it comes to doing business with countries led by autoritarian regimes, hasn’t the west - and the United States in particular - always done the same, although in a less official way?

    I’ll give you the links to the AGOA and the FOCAC, in case you’re interested:

  • Elsje Fourie on 16th May 2010:

    Thanks Tiziana, I’m familiar with FOCAC but not with AGOA, so will be sure to follow it up.  Yes, strange how little attention there has been on the SA cement plant deal.  Regarding your closing question: the West does deals with authoritarian regimes, but I would disagree that they do it in a less official way.  Usually the worst such deals come out one way or another as scandals (eg the Trafigura case last year) and boycotts are at least somewhat enforced.  On the other hand, China seems to conduct its business in Africa free of any such constraints.  A famous quote making the rounds comes from Sahr Johnny, Sierra Leone’s ambassador to China, and sums it up for me:

    “The Chinese are doing more than the G8 to make poverty history. If a G8 country had wanted to rebuild the stadium, we’d still be holding meetings! The Chinese just come and do it. They don’t hold meetings about environmental impact assessment, human rights, bad governance and good governance. I’m not saying it’s right, just that Chinese investment is succeeding because they don’t set high benchmarks”.

  • Sylwia Presley on 25th July 2010:

    Very good post - learned a lot from the post and comments too - thx;)

Post your comment

  • Remember my personal information

    Notify me of follow-up comments?

    --- Let's see if you are human ---

    Apples grow on what? Add a questionmark to your answer. (6 character(s) required)