Can the West learn from China in Africa?

Deborah Brautigam, Associate Professor in American University’s International Development Program, is author of the book The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (see our review here), and a new blog which digs into current China in Africa issues reported in the press. She recently spoke at NYU and answered a few of our questions. Q:  It’s my reading of your book that you think Western donors could learn something from the way China behaves in Africa. What are the strengths of the Chinese way? Are there specific strategies or programs that the West should pay attention to?

A: As a donor, China's way has several advantages. Take the way they operate. They rarely "poach" skilled staff from African ministries to work in their own offices. The focus on turnkey infrastructure projects is far simpler and doesn't overstretch the weak capacity of many African governments faced with multiple meetings, quarterly reports, workshops, and so on. Their experts don't cost much. In addition, their emphasis on local ownership is genuine, even if it leads to projects like a new government office building, a sports stadium, or a conference center. They understand something very fundamental about state-building -- something that Pierre L'Enfant understood in 1791 when he teamed up with George Washington in newly independent America:  new states need to build buildings and dignity, not simply strive to end poverty.

But the Chinese also funded university scholarships, roads, bridges, mini-hydropower, and irrigation, for decades -- when other donors had moved away from most of these sectors. And like Japan, they see nothing wrong with using subsidies to help foster investment by their own companies; this is seen as beneficial to both sides. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, Southeast Asia's "miracle" was underwritten not only by good policies, but by Japanese investment, and Japanese aid was a partner in this. These investments boosted manufacturing prowess, attracting Japanese firms to go offshore. China's engagement in Africa could have similar results in at least a handful of countries with receptive leadership. The Chinese avoid local embezzlement and corruption by very rarely transferring any cash to African governments. There is almost no budget support, no adjustment or policy loans. Aid is disbursed directly to Chinese companies who do the projects. The resource-backed infrastructure loans work the same way. Of course those companies themselves might give kickbacks, as we've seen in Namibia.

Q: How about vice versa? Does China need to learn from the West?

A: Beijing's stubborn refusal to be transparent about official aid and other flows of development finance has created headaches for the Chinese that could have been avoided, in some cases simply by publishing information already being collected in China. The OECD members could teach China something here. The West and Japan are also far more sensitive to social and cultural differences and power relations -- resettlement issues, land tenure rights, women's role in production. In general, the Chinese -- like the World Bank decades ago -- simply depend on local governments to sort these things out. That's one of the downsides of genuine local ownership. China also needs a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to provide a framework for moving against corruption and kickbacks overseas.

Q:  Is Chinese aid more effective than Western aid? Do we have enough information to answer this question?

A: More effective at what? To answer this question we really have to know: what is the real purpose of aid?  If we simply "follow the money" from the US, for example, we can see that national security (including resource security) and diplomacy appear to be far more important than reducing poverty or fostering growth. That said, our understanding of the impact of Chinese aid on development is very, very weak and highly anecdotal. There simply is no data. Until recently, Chinese aid was quite modest and had only local impact. It's still not very extensive. I suspect, as with Western aid, that it will be more effective in conditions/countries with more developmental elites: Mauritius as opposed to Mauritania, for example. On the other hand, Chinese business engagement is already having a tremendous impact. Huawei and ZTE are transforming the cellular telephone landscape across Africa, for example. But this is not aid.

Q:  China has been heavily criticized for its close relationship to the government in Sudan. Do you think the Western perception of Chinese motives in Sudan is accurate? What kind of role do you see China playing in Sudan?

A: Al-Bashir is widely (and correctly) reviled for his role in trying to crush a rebellion in Darfur using extremely brutal force. Chinese aid to Sudan is relatively small, but their engagement (in a joint venture with Sudan) in oil provides the bulk of the revenues that allow al-Bashir to finance the war, and they have plenty of business. As the New York Times recently reported, in the north, Sudan's economy is booming. The Chinese have also blocked and/or watered down Security Council resolutions on Darfur, allowing their focus on sovereignty (and their concern about oil supplies) to trump the newer norm of the "responsibility to protect". Chinese arms continue to flow into the country (probably legally: Sudan is under a UN arms embargo, but it is a limited one). Sudan also has its own arms factories (built by the Chinese) which makes it hard to tell where arms actually originate. All of these provide ample fodder for the critique of China's role.

But several things are not widely reported.

  • First, China's role in Sudan has changed over the past several years. They were crucial in getting Khartoum to accept a joint UN/African Union peacekeeping force (one, by the way, authorized by the UN, but not funded as generously as originally pledged). They allowed al-Bashir's case to be sent to the International Criminal Court for prosecution for war crimes (as Security Council members, they could have vetoed this). And as noted both by President Bush's special envoy, Andrew Natsios, and President Obama's special envoy, Scott Gration, Beijing is now working together with the US government and other major powers in developing joint strategies to bring the Sudanese government and the rebels to the negotiating table. As China-watcher Erica Downs put it, the West and China are now coordinating their "good cop" and "bad cop" roles in trying to end the crisis.
  • Second, there is no doubt that Beijing could have moved much sooner, and much more effectively, to become part of the solution. But they never held all the keys to solving the Darfur tragedy. In making a tactical decision to focus on China as the lynch pin to solving Darfur's crisis, and using the 2008 Olympics as the pressure point, activists let the other major powers off the hook. To end the violence, Darfur needs a peace agreement, and that requires all the parties to participate in negotiations. The West has not yet been able to get all the major rebel groups to show up to start talking.
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Goat loans reach the end of their tether

The following post is written by Diane Bennett and Dennis E. Bennett. “Yes, but is it scalable?” is a question often asked of development interventions. Sure your life-saving malaria net program works in one village, but will it work throughout the whole country? Yes, cash transfers worked in Mexico but will they work in Sierra Leone?

Everyone knows that development interventions should be scalable. But sometimes… everyone is wrong. In our experience working in South Sudan, very short-term, totally unscalable solutions may be just the thing to address specific short-term problems and avoid perpetuating aid dependency.

In 2003, communities displaced from their homes by decades of conflict  were trying to re-establish themselves in Upper Nile, but local leaders found their energies consumed by the demands of growing grain to feed their families. To maximize their efforts on community development, we wanted to improve the food supply and infuse capital into villages, while respecting local mores. For Dennis, a banker who helps multi-billion dollar institutions manage their risk, the problem was an unfamiliar one: how to infuse capital into a cashless society?

Our research found tribes in the area bartering with grain, gold, goats, chickens and cattle. The small amount of circulating bills barely survives local termites, which can devour a pile of cash in just a few hours. Grain is commonly used, but attracts rats, which in turn draw poisonous snakes. In addition, grain needs seed and time for cultivation, depends on unpredictable rainfall, requires storage for excess supplies, and is more vulnerable in times of war. Searching for a better cash-less solution, we found goats. Goats are portable, require relatively little care, and since tribes in the region universally trade goats, this solution doesn't exclude anyone.

We made three loans of three locally-sourced breeding goats each (one male, two females), for a total investment of $300.  The loans were two years, and “repayment” was a reciprocal set of goats (from the progeny), so there was no interest or expense. The loans went to three community leaders, chosen by the communities. Our intention was to reinvest the “repaid” goats back into the village, making the program self-perpetuating. But the villagers had other plans.

Of the three loans, only one was repaid to us, an abject failure in finance terms. Instead, goats were contributed to other villagers to start herds, “paying it forward” rather than paying us back. Instead of continuing with our program, borrowers assumed responsibility and perpetuated the project not just to feed their own families, but to help the whole village.

Five years later, these villages no longer need external food assistance, this program no longer exists, and we can say the Yamachoma (grilled goat) is delicious.

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A Tale of Two Refrigerators

In 2001 in southern Sudan, it was a time of peace between wars. It was a time ripe for treating diseases that kill thousands of children every year. It was an opportune time for measles vaccination to halt outbreaks of one of the world’s most preventable diseases. The Measles Initiative, founded by the WHO, UNICEF, the CDC and the American Red Cross, was created to address this significant challenge. In the rural county where I ran an NGO, over 1,200 young children died of measles over four months in early 2001. The death toll was devastating to our school children and their families: local villagers did not have the resources to combat the outbreak except to bury the dead.

When we reported the outbreak to the WHO, the officials we corresponded with expressed shock and dismay that our communities had no access to a vaccination program to stop the spread. But the WHO was caught in a Catch-22 of their own devising: they were unwilling to allocate resources and send doctors unless they could be certain the outbreak was measles, but they couldn’t be certain it was measles without a clinical diagnosis by qualified medical personnel.

Our NGO shipped out videotape of the infected children to one of the Measles Initiative partners. A medical doctor and global measles expert said the video was some of the best footage of children with measles he’d ever seen, but unfortunately Sudan wasn’t on the list to have a measles eradication program that year and he couldn’t be certain without seeing the patients. Even with the clear video footage, a senior WHO official still wouldn’t attribute the children’s deaths to measles nor send an investigative team. So, as far as we know, the children who died in eastern Upper Nile state in 2001 were never counted in the WHO’s official measles statistics.

Worse yet, the WHO wouldn’t supply vaccines to inoculate children and stop the outbreak without a refrigerator to store them, and the remote communities where we worked had no refrigerator and no reliable power source. UNICEF, we were told, would provide a fridge if the number of diagnosed deaths from measles was significant. But with no qualified medical personnel to diagnose a “significant” number of deaths in our area, we didn’t qualify.

In cooperation with Save the Children (US) and funded by USAID, our NGO set up a medical clinic and put qualified African medical staff in place. Training on running a vaccination program was provided and record-keeping started. The communities waited impatiently for the vaccination program as more children died in subsequent outbreaks. There were hundreds more deaths diagnosed from measles each time. Our NGO was repeatedly told it was “near the top” of the waiting list, but years passed with no refrigerator and no vaccines.

Another outbreak of measles started in mid-2008. In desperation, our NGO raised private funds to purchase a refrigerator and fly it into the isolated area where we worked. Within a few months, our new refrigerator was in place and ready to hold the free vaccines that the Measles Initiative promised to qualified organizations. We have found that “free” is a relative term in Africa, however. We quickly learned that a small number of vaccines were available to us at a regional distribution center, a $5000 air charter flight away.

Just last week, a second refrigerator was delivered, this time courtesy of Save the Children (US), nearly seven years after the original request was made. According to locals, thousands of children have died of measles in the mean time, but the major aid agencies still cannot work together to provide truly free vaccines. Seven years later, this community has two empty refrigerators and still no means to keep their children dying from measles. The refrigerator excuse is gone but the vaccines are effectively out of reach.

Even a time between wars is not the best of times for the poor in rural Sudan. As it turned out, it has been a time of bureaucratic “defer and delay” from the UN aid agencies who failed to provide the vaccines needed to save vulnerable children dying from a preventable disease. After seven years, Save the Children (US) is making the most progress, which is disappointingly slow.

It makes me wonder if the 90% drop in measles infection rate between 2000 and 2006 claimed by the WHO is accurate, or if the children who are dying are just too much trouble for them to count.

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