Charity Begins at Home

Why China's Foreign Aid Won't Replace the West's

Liberian children hold Chinese flags before the arrival of China's President Hu Jintao in Monrovia February 1, 2007.
Liberian children hold Chinese flags before the arrival of China's President Hu Jintao in Monrovia February 1, 2007. Thousands of cheering Liberians lined the streets of the capital Monrovia to greet Hu, hoping for desperately needed investment for their war-scarred nation. (Christopher Herwig / Courtesy Reuters)

A few years ago, I came across a story about a dispute over a courthouse that China had built as an aid project in the Cook Islands. Apparently, the bathrooms in the structure did not account for the significant differences in body shape between the average Chinese and the average Cook Islander. And although that issue was rectified and the courthouse still stands, the building is rusting and the judges perspire working with broken air-conditioning in the tropical heat.

Stories like this have provided ammunition to critics of Chinese aid who insist that Beijing must adopt international standards and policies for overseas development assistance. Their insistence usually stems from two main motives. First, aid professionals worry about the impact of Chinese aid on development outcomes. Second, Western officials seem more concerned about China’s influence in the developing world. But given the complex mix of factors that shape Chinese aid policy, do not expect the country to play by international rules anytime soon.

The dominant -- and largely Western-built -- system of international aid practices has evolved over time, reflecting changing priorities and pressure to improve development outcomes. Recently, Western governments and aid agencies have emphasized transparency and accountability to help partner countries better plan and manage resources effectively. Other best practices include working with a country’s civil society groups to ensure that development is inclusive and using the contractors and suppliers in aid projects,that will give developing countries the best value for their money. Not all Western donors live up to these principles, but they at least aspire to them.

There are many reasons why China does not follow these Western aid practices. Some are well known and have to do with the way in which China wants to position itself globally. For example, China tends to classify its aid as South-South cooperation as a way to distinguish itself from Western donors with colonial histories. But often missed in discussions of Chinese aid are the domestic reasons that limit China from being more like a Western donor.

In China, many players, often with competing interests, are involved in shaping and implementing aid programs. And that makes it difficult for aid officials to impose any coherent rules -- let alone Western ones.

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