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China’s aid to Africa: No strings, more problems

Marking its increased interest in Africa, China made a huge splash by pledging $60 billion for development projects and investments over the next three years. On the surface it’s a boon for countries and their leaders, but research on China’s past no-strings-attached aid shows that the with the money come problems, including increased violence.

In the words of the ’90s rap classic by Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy and Mase:

I don’t know what, they want from me
It’s like the more money we come across
The more problems we see

Over the past few years, China has emerged as an important partner in Africa – with its largesse and no-strings money. And while the funds have helped support areas like infrastructure development, new research shows that it may help leaders build power and increase violence. An analysis of where money provided by China is spent in African countries determined that there was some favoritism.

“When provided with the discretion to do so, the average African leaders seem to play favorites by allocating substantial additional resources to their home constituency to the detriment of citizens who face greater economic needs,” according to a working paper published by AidData.

But it is the connection to violence that are cause for greater concern. Another working paper shows that political violence increases more in countries that receive aid from China as opposed to traditional Western donors. It is the result of both providing aid with limited to no restrictions and working with more oppressive regimes, like Sudan and Zimbabwe.

“As a nation receives more Chinese aid, its military increases its violence against civilians (including bombing them),” according to Roudabeh Kishi and Clionadh Raleigh, who wrote about their research on the Monkey Cage blog. “State leaders and regimes further use this aid to finance their hold on power by repressing political competitors, such as other political parties and opponents, through tactics such as increased surveillance, detaining and jailing individuals, suppressing peaceful protests and forced displacement.”

Chinese aid is not limited to undemocratic regimes. Democracies like Ghana, South Africa and Tanzania benefit from Chinese aid money. South African President Jacob Zuma championed the announcement by Chinese President Xi Jinping to increase aid to countries in Africa. Leaders appreciate the opportunity to spend money as they thing is best for their country – an ideal espoused by critics of Western foreign aid constraints.

“Africa and China are together a fraternal community with a shared and prosperous future,” said Zuma, at the announcement. “China and Africa want to prosper together.”

A different working paper from AidData debunks some of the supposed myths about China in Africa. It points out that authoritarian regimes are not favored by China. Nor are countries that are resource-rich. Their analysis shows that most of the money goes to the poorest countries. In the end, China may not be all that different from Western donors – it has interests that vary.

Further, not all money from China to Africa is aid. Trade between China and Africa was estimated to be $220 billion in 2014. And then there are the more than $1 billion in direct investments by China in Africa over the first half of 2015. The new initiative announced by Xi will include foreign aid, investments and the cancellation of debt “with zero interest loans for least developed countries that mature by the end of 2015,” reported Reuters.

With all the attention on China, it is easy to forget the significance of the U.S. and other donors. China’s $31.5 billion in official development assistance between 2000 and 2013 pales in comparison to the $92.7 provided by the U.S. over the same period.

Updated to make clear that China’s announced package is a diverse set of investments and aid.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]