China Is Not a Rogue Donor

The Data Behind Chinese Aid

An aerial view shows rice plants in the shape of the map of China in a paddy field in Zhonghong village, on the outskirts of Shanghai, China, October 13, 2015. Reuters via China Daily

In 2007, Moisés Naím, the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, coined the term “rogue aid” to describe Chinese development money to Africa. And ever since, China’s reputation as a malevolent donor—one that props up autocratic regimes in return for access to natural resources—has stuck. As evidence, proponents of this theory cite China’s spending in Africa. It enticed Nigeria, for example, out of accepting World Bank aid by offering less concessional funds instead. But a newly released paper, “Apples and Dragon Fruits,” refutes that claim. A diverse team of scholars led by Axel Dreher parsed data gathered by AidData, a research lab at the College of William and Mary that uses innovative methods to track development funding, and found that China isn’t actually a rogue donor. In fact, it doesn’t behave much differently than Western countries when it comes to aid. Why, then, is there such a disconnect between what the stories show and what the data says? According to the scholars, the difference lies in how you define aid. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has a strict definition of aid, which it calls “official development assistance” or ODA. To count as aid, the money must flow through official channels, be spent primarily on “economic development and welfare,” and at least a quarter of it must contain a grant element. By applying these standards to Chinese aid, the scholars were able to offer a more accurate picture of how China distributes its ODA-like funds. In particular, Chinese aid is not driven by the recipient’s regime-type or its natural resources but by foreign policy considerations: it favors countries that vote with it in the United Nations General Assembly and countries that do not recognize Taiwan. The United States, too, prefers donating to countries that vote with it in the UN General Assembly. But when it comes to other official, more commercially-oriented types of financing, China does indeed differ from the West. China prefers countries that have good credit and are rich in natural resources. And more often than not, these countries exhibit higher levels of corruption. In short, China’s philanthropy in Africa is actually fairly philanthropic, even if its other financing on the continent might still be considered “rogue.”

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