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China aid splurge fails to bridge credibility gap in Africa

Few policymakers in the developing world trust China’s advice — this is the message of a survey that points to the limitations of Beijing’s efforts to project “soft power” in poorer countries despite spending billions to curry favour in recent years.

Between 2000 and 2013 China provided almost $95bn in aid and other official financing to Africa alone, according to research compiled by AidData, a US-based research project that tracks flows of development assistance.

However, Beijing’s three main conduits for that money and related policy advice — the China Development Bank, the China Export-Import Bank and its own embassies — appear to struggle with credibility in the countries they target.

The survey of officials from 126 low- and middle-income countries ranked the China Development Bank 75th out of 86 bilateral and multilateral development finance institutions according to the “usefulness” of its advice. The China Export-Import Bank Bank ranked 59th while Chinese embassies finished 70th.

“China was bottom of the league tables,” said Brad Parks, one of the report’s authors.

When the officials — who included 47 heads of state or government and almost 250 ministers or heads of local agencies — were asked to rank the “agenda-setting influence” of foreign institutions on their soil, Chinese entities ended up with a similar lowly ranking.

By contrast, the survey found traditional players, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as specialised groups like the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, ranked highly. However, officials did not think much of the advice of highly paid expatriate consultants often employed by international donors.

The findings raise questions about how effective China has been in getting traction in the developing world for what some have called the “Beijing consensus” as a potential rival to the advice of multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and US and European aid agencies.

Over the past decade concern has been rising in places such as Washington and London that China is displacing traditional donors in the developing world. However, worries about China’s expanding influence “are probably way overblown”, said Mr Parks.

“That doesn’t mean that things might not change over time,” he added.

“But the way the ‘Beijing consensus’ has been characterised is maybe at variance with the first-hand experience that people are reporting on the ground in the developing world.”

Beijing’s forays into Africa and other parts of the developing world have long been characterised as being driven by commercial, economic and strategic self-interest rather than charity. The efforts have also put much emphasis on trade relationships and links such as ports and rail lines that are vital to trade.

President Xi Jinping’s most prominent international project has been the “One Belt, One Road” plan to revive the ancient overland Silk Road between China and Europe and to strengthen the trading relationships with countries along the route. And the one area, the AidData survey found, where China did do well in the eyes of officials in recipient countries was in trade policy.

But China’s pursuit of influence in places such as Africa is often more unabashedly politically targeted. As part of a separate research project, AidData found that, on average, African leaders’ home provinces received four times as much Chinese aid and other financing during their time in power as other regions.

Shawn Donnan in Washington- Financial Times


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