Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 19:57 | SYDNEY
Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 19:57 | SYDNEY

A trilateral approach to China's foreign aid



26 October 2011 15:02

Philippa Brant is a PhD candidate researching Chinese foreign aid. This post is co-authored by Philippa's colleague, who for professional reasons must remain anonymous.

China has been providing foreign aid since 1950, but over the past few years, its international aid presence has increased significantly, and the impact has not gone unnoticed by traditional aid donors, who are debating the motivations, modalities, and effectiveness of Chinese aid, as well as the implications for their own work.

While China is unlikely to ever fully embrace the values of the OECD's Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donor community, it does appear to have recently become more open to international engagement, as the release of its first White Paper in April this year suggests. 

As such, many traditional donors with offices in Beijing have been shifting gear to engage China in a trilateral approach – that is, to work with China in certain aspects of its bilateral aid programme. The underlying understanding is that, by being exposed to international best practices on monitoring and evaluation, social and environmental impact assessments, and local community needs assessments, the Chinese may begin to embrace such approaches.

Within the Australian development and foreign aid community, however, this shift has been largely overlooked.

This trilateral engagement with China by traditional donors is motivated by international considerations, such as the impact of Chinese aid on their own overseas development projects, and the larger system of norms and values around international aid. Domestic considerations, such as the need to justify retaining an aid presence in China — now the second largest economy in the world — also play a role.

Traditional donors are experimenting with a variety of methods for engaging China. Some, such as the UK's aid agency, DFID, have signed memoranda of understanding with China's Ministry of Commerce, which oversees Beijing's aid program. An MoU is seen as a symbol to reassure Chinese partners that the trilateral approach has high-level support. Others prefer a more bottom-up approach, working on practical projects with line ministries such as Health, Agriculture or Education. Many are doing both.

For the most part, donors are finding this new experiment in trilateral cooperation challenging, in which setting one foot wrong in the complicated Chinese political system can undermine even the most carefully planned strategy. Many donors feel progress on trilateral cooperation has been slower than expected.

While a number of high-level summits and training programs for African officials have been held, covering topics such as China's development success and agricultural productivity, and Chinese officials have participated in joint assessments of aid projects in particular sectors, to date no traditional donor has succeeded in working with China in another developing country on a concrete project (although some are reportedly in the pipeline).

On the Chinese side, there are also mixed imperatives for increasing trilateral cooperation. Between 2004-2009, China's foreign aid program expanded by an average of around 30% per year. Aware of the implications of this growth, some Chinese aid officials have expressed a desire to learn more about technical and operational aspects of traditional donors' aid programs, and Chinese research institutes are studying aid effectiveness concepts and details of traditional donor programs. There is also pressure on China from members of the recipient community to change some of its aid practices.

However, within some elements of the aid bureaucracy there remains a strong commitment to pursuing Chinese aid on China's own terms, and bureaucratic change, like anywhere, is slow.

China's increasing levels of overseas aid has considerable implications in areas where traditional DAC donors like Australia are stakeholders. The debate around engaging trilaterally with China on overseas aid is one with which the Australian policy community should be more conversant.

Photo courtesy of China Military Online.

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