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China and the end of poverty in Africa – towards mutual benefit?

Penny Davies

European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad) and Diakonia

August 2007

SARPN acknowledges the author as a source of this document.
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Executive summary

  1. Introduction

    In November 2006 China hosted the Third Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) attended by 48 African countries. This unprecedented high level meeting manifested the increased cooperation between China and Africa in recent years.

    Undisputedly, Chinese policies, including trade and investments and its role as a donor and creditor, will have an important impact on the future of developing countries in Africa and the joint global challenge to combat poverty.

    The purpose of this report is to contribute to an increased knowledge and understanding of China’s role in Africa. The target group is foremost Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) across the world engaged in various types of development work.

    The focus of the report is Chinese development assistance policies, i.e. China’s role as a donor to Africa, an area not so much written on in comparison with trade and investments. The report explores Chinese views on China’s role as an important player in development policies and what responses China has to concerns expressed by external stakeholders about the increased Chinese cooperation with Africa.

    The report builds on desk studies between March and July 2007, as well as 27 interviews with foremost Chinese decision makers, institutions, organisations and researchers but also donors to both China and Africa, carried out in Beijing March – April 2007.


  2. China goes into Africa – an overview of China’s increased engagement

    2006 marked a historic year in China-Africa relations. The FOCAC Summit witnessed the birth of gthe establishment of a new type of strategic partnership between China and Africa featuring political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchanges.h In the Action Plan for 2007.2009 adopted at the meeting, China has made a number of concrete pledges. The same year China adopted a specific African Policy drawing up the principles and areas for future cooperation.

    China is moving rapidly ahead forging ties with African countries manifested in increasing trade and investment figures. In 2006 trade surged to US$55 billion and is set to reach US$100 billion by 2010. China has become Africa’s third largest trade partner. The share of Africa in total Chinese outward FDI has been marginal up till now, but is increasing rapidly. In May 2007 China announced that it will provide about US$20 billion in infrastructure and trade financing to Africa over the next three years.

    China’s so called “march into Africa” is to a large extent linked to its growing economy. Access to raw materials and oil in particular is a key motive for China’s engagement in Africa. There are also more politically motivated drivers stressed by Chinese scholars. Africa is important for China’s foreign policy agenda and the building of alliances.

    In much of the debate in a western context on China’s role in Africa, China is often viewed as a threat and competitor to industrialised countries for access to Africa’s natural resources. This disregards the fact that much of the resources imported into China are re-exported in the form of value added inputs or products to uphold consumption in industrialised countries. China also has a legitimate claim to develop and lift its population out of poverty for which it will need resources. While China is responsible for its actions in Africa, these two aspects pose challenges not only for China and Africa relations, but for rich countries whose consumption and production patterns are unsustainable.

    There is an evolving international debate about the benefits and drawbacks for Africa of this new strategic partnership. Most analyses point to the fact that the picture is not black and white.

    A key question is how African countries are to make the most of the possibilities and address the challenges which China brings for poverty reduction and development at large. This has implications for domestic policies in Africa, for negotiations between Africa and China, and for traditional donors who need to attune their policies towards Africa and China and find a new role as the Sino-African cooperation grows stronger.


  3. China – a developing country and an emerging donor

    China has an interesting dual role as both donor and recipient country. China has achieved remarkable success in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Nevertheless, China is facing a number of challenges, many of them similar to those facing African countries.

    China has an interesting dual role as both donor and recipient country. China has achieved remarkable success in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Nevertheless, China is facing a number of challenges, many of them similar to those facing African countries.

    The aid levels are small in comparison with the size of the population and there is no significant direct impact on poverty through the provision of funding. However, according to both donors to China and Chinese scholars, aid is very important in terms of the exchange of ideas. This is also stressed by the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development (LGOP) suggesting a triangular exchange of ideas where China could learn from developed countries and at the same time share experiences with developing countries on China’s success in lifting large parts of its population out of poverty.

    Chinese scholars stress that China and African countries share similar challenges and experiences as developing countries. On another level, it has been said that China’s development model offers an alternative to African countries to the structural adjustment policies prescribed by the World Bank and the IMF. Initiatives are underway for experience sharing.


  4. The evolution of China’s assistance to and cooperation with Africa

    2006 marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and African countries. China’s African policy has in modern history gone through roughly three phases:

    • A first phase, during which China’s policy was primarily politically and ideologically driven in supporting African people in their struggle for national independence.
    • A second phase with a move away from ideology to a focus on economic cooperation. This meant a decrease in Chinese aid to and trade with African countries.
    • A third phase, when China again intensified its cooperation with African countries.

    Since the 90s China’s African policy has had both a political and economic focus, and other forms of cooperation, including cultural, have been added to this. The present strategy is thus described as more inclusive and holistic in its approach, which is manifested in the FOCAC.

    Chinese scholars put emphasis on the continuity of relations with African countries. The eight principles for providing aid to foreign countries, first laid out by Premier Zhou Enlai in the 60s, are still relevant principles that continue to guide policies. There has however been a move towards more specific commitments and pledges.

    A fundamental principle, enshrined in China’s 2006 African Policy, is to provide assistance with “no political strings attached” (see further below). Another of the eight principles dating from the 60s, is the principle of “equality and mutual benefit”. Aid is carried out within the framework of South-South cooperation as one of several forms of cooperation. China does not use the language of donor and recipients when giving aid, but mutual benefit.


  5. Chinese development assistance to Africa

    The following are the main institutions involved in assistance to African countries:

    • The State Council is the highest executive organ as well as the highest organ of State administration, above the government ministries.


    • The Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) is the main government body in charge of Chinese aid and coordinates aid policies with foremost the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also with other government ministries and bodies involved.


    • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has an advisory role on aid and economic cooperation and is in charge of diplomatic contacts and of coordinating concrete policies in the bilateral undertakings.


    • The Finance Ministry is in charge of the budget as well as multilateral aid.


    • The Chinese Embassies monitor the implementation of projects and report on their progress to the Chinese government.


    • The Export-Import Bank of China (China Exim Bank) is in charge of Chinese government concessional loans.

    There are also other government ministries involved in channelling aid and banks which play a role in the Chinese government’s “going out strategy”.

    Chinese development assistance processes are complicated with many actors involved. China has no development cooperation agency to coordinate the policies, but there have been talks of setting one up. The FOCAC process has however resulted in an institutionalised coordination process of cooperation with African countries in general.

    China has made a commitment to double its 2006 assistance to Africa by 2009. However, China does not disclose how much aid it gives to foreign countries and it is unknown what the doubling will mean in actual figures. In 2006, Premier Wen Jiabao, for the first time according to Chinese scholars, gave a figure when in a statement he said that China from 1949 to date has spent 44.4 billion yuan (approximately US$5.6 billion) assisting African countries. This figure is however thought to be too low according to Chinese scholars. The China Exim Bank stated in February 2007 that it has extended concessional loans to Africa with a total outstanding balance of approximately US$8-9 billion.

    In the absence of officially reported annual aid flows, various estimates have been made based on press reports and pieces of information from official government speeches. Regardless of the exact figure it is clear that China will continue to substantially increase its aid to African countries.

    One set of reasons given why China does not disclose its aid figures relate to cautiousness or lack of will on the part of the government to report the volume. A second set of reasons relate to government constraints and that the government itself might not know the exact figure. China has no clear criteria for how aid is calculated. The government is according to MOFCOM currently looking into what could be defined as aid. There is a strong case for developing and disclosing both criteria for and volume of Chinese aid.

    There are three forms of assistance:

    • Grants – in kind not in cash, provided by MOFCOM;


    • Interest free loans – often converted into debt cancellations, provided by MOFCOM;


    • Concessional loans – introduced in 1995 and provided by the China Exim Bank.

    Debt relief: The Chinese government has announced three packages of debt relief; in 2000, 2005 and 2006. As of April 17 2007, the first package had been delivered to a value of 10.9 billion RMB (approximately US$1.38 billion) to 31 African countries.

    China’s assistance is exclusively project based. Projects are mostly part of bigger package deals which include other types of cooperation with the recipient countries. Over the past 50 years China has, according to MOFCOM, assisted African countries with 133 infrastructure projects, 38 hospitals and has dispatched 16 000 medical personnel to Africa.

    China does not concentrate on specific countries; the recipients include all 53 African countries. Top recipients, according to Chinese scholars, are Angola, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and Ethiopia. It is difficult to get aggregated information of the compilation of loans and grants, to which countries and what projects China directs its assistance.

    China’s development assistance is mostly bilateral. China channels some aid via multilateral institutions including UN agencies, the ADB and the AfDB, and will do so increasingly.

    China adheres to the principle of multilateralism in its general political priorities. In particular China stresses the need to promote the interest of developing countries in the international arena.


  6. Aid effectiveness

    Aid effectiveness has become a key word in discussions around development finance. CSOs have long highlighted the need for not just more but better aid. External analyses state that little is known about the quality and impact of Chinese assistance to Africa and of how Chinese authorities assess such issues.

    A common answer to the question what aid effectiveness means for China, was that Chinese aid is effective as it is concrete; it is providing Africa with concrete things they can use, like buildings and roads.

    According to MOFCOM an evaluation is done for each project and there is an institutionalised process for this. A Chinese scholar however stated that there are only rough evaluations of the social benefits of aid. On the issue of the risk of corruption, scholars and MOFCOM said that the fact that China does not give aid in cash but in kind (material, roads, hospitals etc.) means there is less risk of corruption.

    Officials and scholars stated that China in general is interested in learning from other donors with a longer experience of providing aid; at the same time there is strong confidence in the Chinese model.

    China has signed up to the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness thereby committing to its five principles including ownership, alignment and harmonisation. According to donors to China, China probably signed up in its capacity as a recipient rather than as a donor country.

    China is said to put a lot of emphasis on ownership of recipients and aligns its aid to national priorities, but through other mechanisms than that of traditional donors. The Chinese way of aligning aid and its concept of ownership are however focused on governments as opposed to a model of broad based participation when setting national priorities.

    Concerns raised by external actors are China’s use of tied aid and that Chinese projects are carried out with Chinese labour, inhibiting local employment, capacity building etc. The Chinese government has said it has no preference per se for Chinese labour. Pledges have been made to prioritise local capacity building and technical support is given to prepare local people to take over and run projects. Whether these measures are sufficient or not, needs to be studied in the respective African countries.

    Donors to China and Africa try to engage China in joint discussions on Africa and development. The UN was stated to be China’s first choice if engaging in joint donor initiatives. China participates in donor meetings in African countries if the recipient country governments invite them, but they do not want to be associated with donor driven initiatives.

    A key challenge ahead in terms of aid effectiveness is the fact that annual aid figures are not disclosed. There is a need for independent and transparent audit and reporting processes, involving the African countries at the receiving end. In terms of donor cooperation, a main challenge will be to overcome the barriers of suspicion which seem to exist. African countries and their citizens are key in this, as they in the first place are the ones to define what aid effectiveness means in their respective contexts and what kind of assistance donors could provide.


  7. No political strings attached

    According to China’s African Policy, China will provide assistance “with no political strings attached”. The one political condition China does have for the establishment of its relations with African countries is the one China principle, i.e. not to give formal recognition to Taiwan. However, China does give assistance to all 53 African countries, not just the 48 it has formal diplomatic ties with. Albeit China does not push for reforms in recipient countries, tied aid is a type of condition China has, as stated above.

    The no political strings attached policy has raised much debate and reactions from external actors. According to CSOs there is a risk that the Chinese policy will: 1) strengthen repressive regimes/elites that are not working in the interest of poor people or development at large 2) weaken social and environmental standards and not benefit poor people and the environment 3) weaken efforts to combat corruption and promote good governance. Other donors to Africa have expressed concern and lashed out with fierce criticism.

    There is clear evidence that there are grounds for the concerns expressed by CSOs and donors to Africa, although more impact analyses are needed.

    Three general motivations for the principle were given by Chinese stakeholders: First, the non-interference policy is deeply rooted in China’s historical experience of western interference and China is therefore careful not to interfere in African countries. Second, the Chinese government is careful not to interfere as it sees its political problems in Taiwan and Tibet as internal affairs. Third, the principle is based on China’s own experience of being able to develop according to its national context without facing conditionalities.

    A general view among Chinese scholars is that China is willing to learn from both positive and negative experiences, and find a middle way if dilemmas arise. If African countries raise issues of environmental and social concerns China will listen, more so than if western countries raise them.

    Regarding the concern that China supports regimes like those in Zimbabwe and Sudan, which western donors have shunned due to their human rights violations, China’s way is said to be to conduct quiet diplomacy in support of African regional organisations for them to solve their own problems. Several scholars stated that China’s attitude in Sudan has changed, illustrating that China is not immune to critique raised by the international community. This is not to say that the initiatives are sufficient.

    According to Chinese scholars the government is very aware of environmental and social concerns in relation to Chinese companies’ activities abroad and is making efforts to address these. This is said to be a priority issue as China realises the risks of negative images of its companies.

    The Chinese view is that Chinese aid is less afflicted by corruption as the aid is given in kind not in cash. However, the problem of corruption as such has been acknowledged by the Chinese government and initiatives have been taken to address this. The view is that solving the problem of corruption by using aid money to pressure for change, will not work.

    Looking ahead, although some measures have been taken to deal with the issue of social and environmental standards it is clear that this remains a huge challenge for the successful implementation of China’s African Policy. On the one hand it reflects the complexity of several different driving forces and conflicting interests involved. On the other hand, it reflects some of the challenges China is facing and grappling with on a domestic level.

    The key question is whether China’s no political strings attached policy will benefit African people and the environment. It is clear that the notion of sovereignty of the nation state is valued very highly by China. Therefore, whether the no political strings attached policy will be beneficial or not is left in the hands of the governments in place. The question is what happens in cases where governments either lack the will or capacity to protect and work for the benefit of people and the environment. This is where the non interference policy will leave poor people and the environment short.

    Some analyses suggest that as China’s presence in Africa expands it will be more difficult to stay out of domestic policies. The non interference is more and more difficult to reconcile with China’s other objective of being a responsible international stakeholder.

    There is a need for a global agreement between new and old donor countries and recipients on responsible financing standards.


  8. Debt sustainability

    The substantial increase of loans from China has generated a concern among development institutions that new non-concessional or low concessionality loans will threaten the debt sustainability of poor borrowing countries and thereby trigger a new debt crisis. This would undermine the debt cancellations granted so far.

    A common response from Chinese scholars to the question of the risk of a debt build up is that China does not expect African countries to pay back if it is a government to government loan and the recipient is facing pay back difficulties. China has provided debt relief to 31 African countries to the amount of 10.9 billion RMB (approximately US$1.38 billion) and has made further pledges.

    Another common answer to the concern raised is that Chinese lending is still small. Chinese stakeholders also point out that Western countries are responsible for the debt crisis.

    As China steps up its lending to African countries, the question of how the potential debt distress is assessed by China is still very relevant. New lending pledges indicate that China in the near future will no longer be “a small provider of loans”.

    According to the Exim Bank, China deals with debt sustainability in the lending agreements in three ways: They ensure project returns will be robust; they will consult with the local IMF office to discuss the loan in the context of the debt sustainability framework; they ensure that the project is part of the country’s development plans.

    According to the President of the AfDB, China’s view of debt sustainability differs from that of traditional donors. The Chinese, he has said, look at the potential of African countries in the long term, rather than assessing their immediate ability to repay loans.

    As there is little transparency on the exact terms of Chinese loans and to which countries what loans are given, it is difficult to know if Chinese lending is a threat to the debt sustainability of poor countries, and if so how big a problem it is. The concern is however not difficult to motivate. Failed export credit lending was behind much of the previous debts of African countries and China is rapidly moving ahead in providing such loans.

    The reactions of traditional lenders have been criticized by CSOs and others, who at the same time share the concern for the debt sustainability of African countries. In particular the IDA/World Bank so called “free rider policy”, which punishes poor borrowing countries who take on new more expensive loans, is seen as counterproductive.

    It is clear that China as a new lender has accelerated the debate on responsible lending practices among traditional donors. In the best case scenario, this could result in traditional donors stepping up their commitments and reforming some of the existing mechanisms which fall short of providing a long term solution to the debt crisis, as well as result in an agreement with China on debt sustainability and other aspects of responsible lending.

    Mutual understanding and dialogue are needed between new and old lenders and borrowing countries.


  9. Conclusions and possible ways forward

    The last chapter identifies a number of conclusions and possible ways forward that might be of relevance for different stakeholders: CSOs in western countries, in Africa and China, and governments: the Chinese, African and western. The headings are listed below:

    1. China’s assistance to and cooperation with Africa are changing the rules of the game and threaten to leave governments, institutions and organisations that do not act strategically by the wayside;


    2. Triangular dialogue approaches are needed;


    3. Western governments should practise what they preach;


    4. The Chinese government should convert words into action – from a narrow non-interference to a broad based “non-indifference”;


    5. China’s growing role as a lender and donor to Africa challenges current development paradigms – towards joint standards for responsible lending and effective aid;


    6. China’s economic rise and so called “march into Africa” challenges unsustainable consumption and production patterns – towards global cooperation for sustainability.




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