Schools. Roads. Hospitals. For Westerners contributing to foreign aid in Africa, these elements of infrastructure may seem like opportunities for foreign aid to meet basic needs. For China, however, these are strategic investments in Africa’s potential for bilateral trade.
Over the last twenty years, China has dramatically increased foreign aid to Africa. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, China increased funding for aid from $5.6 billion in 1990 to $21.8 billion in 2007. In 2009, China disbursed around $1.4 billion in aid to Africa alone.
Experts say that China’s increasing presence on the African continent is a strategic move to gain access to vast natural resources. For example, China has invested more than $400 million dollars in Zambia alone, where coal mines have provided both employment opportunities and resources. Similar contracts have been made with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which would heavily benefit Chinese railway and mining companies.
While Western foreign aid often addresses basic needs like food, water, shelter, and health, Chinese aid has provided funding for projects that Western aid agencies are reluctant to give money to infrastructure and local projects. Whereas foreign aid from the United States is often accompanied by economic and political conditions, Chinese aid is given without any strings attached.
Much of China’s aid also addresses education, setting the stage for an industrial and manufacturing based Africa. Last year former Chinese President Hu Jintao announced that over the next three years, an “African Talents Program” would offer 18,000 scholarships to Chinese universities and train 30,000 Africans in a number of sectors.
China’s full aid volume remains unclear, as the Chinese government considers this amount a state secret, lack of transparency that stands in harsh contrast with Western aid agencies. Furthermore, much of the aid provided is in the form of loans. Carol Lancaster, the fellow at the Center for Global Development, writes that the pressing question for many is this: “Will Chinese aid discourage needed economic and political reforms in African countries?”
However, for those who are treated at the China-Zambia Friendship Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia, one of a number of Chinese projects in key African countries, aid is aid and needs are being met. As for the education programs, assistant dean at Tsinghua University Meng Bo says, the biggest impact is hoped to be for students from politically unstable countries like Somalia. “We believe in the long run [alumni] will all contribute to different academic and professional relations between the two countries.”
According to Lin Jing, Counselor of the African Department at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China’s relationship with Africa is not just economic, but “that of moral obligation.” China’s soft power may present a challenge to the Western world, but China’s increasing influence through aid is an opportunity for East-West collaboration to address global poverty and underdevelopment in Africa.
– Naomi Doraisamy