Join our network

August 4, 2014

How China’s NGOs are entering Africa

by Hu Jianlong

On the evening of 18 May, the Africa Philanthropy Forum was held at a congress hall near the Lingshan Buddha -- East China’s largest Buddha statue. The climax of the event was when Gu Xiulian, a former deputy chairwoman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, and Ethiopia’s First Lady jointly held up a vermilion tablet with “10 million Yuan” written on it. The former represented the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA), which pledged 10 million Yuan ($1.6 million) to the “Smiling Children” pilot project in Ethiopia, to be implemented in the next five years jointly with the First Lady’s Office. When the first lady gave her words of thanks -- before the cameras captured the two ladies’ smiles – she became so emotional she could hardly speak.

The scene mirrored an earlier event in China-Africa relations, though between politicians. A week earlier, on his first visit to Africa, Premier Li Keqiang arrived in one capital after the other waving cheques in support of our African brothers. And at the negotiating tables, he signed the most generous infrastructure investment agreements to date.

At the Africa Philanthropy Forum CFPA’s executive chairman, He Daofeng, announced the NGO’s strategy to enter Africa in a stirring speech. Picking up the forum’s theme, “People Helping People,” He explained that China’s traditional foreign aid strategy has relied on government-to-government cooperation -- what he termed the “G2G” model. It was time, he said, to infuse the process with new perspectives and forces to be gained from “P2P” (people-to-people) cooperation.

Although He spoke only in CFPA’s name and did not provide a timetable, African attendees eagerly embraced the prospect of NGOs coming from China. “What’s next?” -- asked Susan Tiisa Mugwanya, in charge of culture and education at the Ugandan Embassy in Beijing.

CFPA has no clear plan for Uganda. Mugwanya is unlikely to have been satisfied by the Chinese host’s vague answer. Still, the Ugandans have reason to be pleased. In April 2014, Western NGOs in Kampala were vocal in criticising the Ugandan government’s draft of a law criminalising homosexuality law. According to Reuters, the minister of internal affairs warned them that they had no right to interfere with Uganda’s domestic matters. Officials in many African countries have grown tired of Western NGOs. The arrival of the Chinese promises more choices and generates excitement.

After the first Chinese appeared in Zambia’s Copperbelt and in Congo’s jungles a few years ago, others were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Now, many are joining the effort to build civil society in Africa. Once the door has been opened, some Chinese NGOs are actively pursuing a “going out” strategy; others go along with the Ministry of Commerce’s (MofCom’s) pressure to join in its pilot project to develop a new modality in China’s foreign development assistance. Together, they represent a diverse range of activities.

This spring, a friend visited the official in charge of MofCom’s foreign aid department. The official recited a series of old clichés: “Through all these years, our aid has been quite successful. Just think of the Tazara railway.” Recounting this official’s words with an expression of distaste, my friend pointed out: “After all these years, their favourite success story is still Tazara,” completed in 1976. “How pitiful is that! These people,” he continued, referring to the makers and shapers of China’s foreign aid policy, “still live in Mao’s shadow, but they don’t have Mao’s guts to get something like Tazara done.”

This sort of biting criticism is common in private conversations. But the Foreign Ministry and the Communist Party’s International Department, MofCom’s competitors on the foreign aid front, often criticise the latter for similar reasons. Since 2008, such voices have grown stronger. After Premier Wen Jiabao announced his 4 trillion Yuan stimulus plan for the economy, Chinese companies, not used to being mobile, began scrambling for opportunities everywhere. “Going out” became a business fad and a government mantra. At the same time, as personnel moved around and investment was scaled up, friction on labour, legal, and environmental issues became more visible.

Some scholars believe that MofCom’s foreign aid policy is largely driven by economic considerations, and its complementarily with the goals of Chinese diplomacy is limited. The continuing damage to China’s interests and international image in Africa cannot all be attributed to the incompetence of MofCom or Foreign Ministry officials or the failure of foreign aid policy. But as early as in 2009, high-level decision makers were planning to tackle these problems.

In February 2009, then State Council Chairman Hu Jintao, during his visit to four African countries, pledged to “enthusiastically support African countries’ development and improvement of livelihoods.” Since then, “African people’s livelihoods” has become mainstream language in the ideological framing of China-Africa relations by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials. In particular, it surfaced extensively in quotes from official experts in Xinhua News Agency’s feel-good propaganda pieces ahead of Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Africa in May this year.

Li Keqiang inherited this language from the previous government and expanded upon it. In Angola, he discussed “people’s livelihoods” at a roundtable with representatives of Chinese enterprises and other Chinese citizens resident in the country, the first time this issue was made the subject of discussion during a top official’s visit abroad. This signals that China is in the process of revising the way of providing foreign aid it has employed for many years – one for which the Tazara railway stood in Mao’s time, and countless government buildings and mega-stadiums in the first thirty years of the post-Mao era.

In government parlance, all these are called “turnkey projects”. The White Paper on Foreign Aid, published in April 2011, lists them in first place among eight types of foreign aid. More precisely, such projects can be described as industrial and civil engineering projects financed by aid grants and interest-free loans from China.

As “people’s livelihood projects” become more mainstream in the future, “turnkey projects” may become more marginal. Facing such pressure, MofCom, too, has come up with “new thinking.” “Grassroots organisations participating in foreign aid” has become part of the reform agenda. So far, this policy has not been made public. It is hard to say when the proposal arrived on the desk of the minister of commerce, but it must have been pushed by open-minded officials within the CCP system.

At a “going out” forum organised by the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade in April this year, a businessman from Fujian made a candid speech. His company is present throughout Africa and has been rather successful. Facing the microphone, he called on Chinese NGOs to go to Africa now. In his view, this was essential for improving the operating environment.

In late 2013, I visited China’s ambassador in Lusaka, Zhou Yuxiao. He has rich foreign service experience in Africa and, unlike traditional Chinese diplomats, often leaves his official compound to talk to Zambians from all walks of life. Ambassador Zhou observed that, in the past years, Western aid for Africa has increasingly been channelled through NGOs. Indeed, as the Zambian scholar Dambisa Moyo noted in Dead Aid and William Easterly in The Tyranny of Experts, the government-to-government aid model led by the World Bank and Western development agencies is long since bankrupt in Africa.

Some of MofCom’s experienced officials, too, have realised that they need players from outside the government apparatus to rescue foreign aid from anomie. Some Chinese NGOs have flagged their willingness to participate in foreign aid to MofCom’s top leadership. The ministry is said to have agreed in principle to allocate some of its foreign aid budget to procuring services from NGOs.

This comes against a background of rapid growth in Chinese philanthropy and civil society. In 2013, the Chinese government spent 15 bn Yuan on service-delivery contracts with social organisations domestically. Applying a similar model to foreign aid would not challenge the red lines of government policy.

Still, it is unclear when it will get a green light. According to an NGO delegate at the Africa Philanthropy Forum, talk of pilot projects financed by MofCom started last year, but it was still uncertain whether the pilots could begin in 2014.

Resistance to the initiative may be coming less from the bureaucracy than from public opinion. On the Chinese Internet and social media platforms, foreign aid tends to be discussed with vitriolic sarcasm and creative teasing. Although China’s foreign aid volumes are far smaller than people tend to think, when the news of Premier Li’s African visit was publicised on Sina Weibo – China’s equivalent of Twitter – most reactions questioned why Chinese taxpayers’ hard-earned money had to be squandered in Africa.

The policy is hard for the government to justify. In April this year, the World Bank released a report claiming that, at purchasing power parity, China’s economy has already overtaken the U.S. to become the world’s largest. But according to Western media, China refused to accept the “number one” label and pressured the World Bank for a full year to embargo the report.

The Chinese government has gone to great lengths to protect its precarious hold on developing country status. Historically, foreign aid has flown from developed to developing countries. Developing countries aiding developing countries is a rare occurrence. It is easy for people to question China’s behaviour: if it is a developing country, why assume a responsibility that does not match its economic standing?

The controversy around foreign aid has also to do with the structure of Chinese society. An enormous gap between rich and poor means that a sizeable proportion of citizens experience relative deprivation. They are unlikely to have travelled abroad, and the ideals of world citizenship are largely absent from China’s education system. Thus, they tend to see foreign aid as taking from the family to support an illicit passion outside, and use the topic to vent their frustrations online.

Such storms in cyberspace may be irrational and bear no relation to facts, but they are a source of heavy pressure on the authorities. On 3 August 2011, a Chinese businessman donated 1.5 bn Yuan ($242.7 million) to the China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) to build one thousand “China-Africa Hope Schools” in Africa. Later, this businessman was mentioned in a number of negative news reports, raising doubts about the project, and by implication about the foundation’s involvement. This set back CYDF’s originally ambitious African plans. “There were no problems with the project itself, only with our partner,” a foundation official told me wistfully. “Now we don’t even dare mention Africa anymore.”

Foreign aid has also become a sensitive, even risky, topic for government officials. When this reporter tried to raise it with a deputy head of MofCom’s West Asia and Africa department at the Africa Philanthropy Forum on May 18, the official waved him away with the words “This issue is too sensitive.”

As for NGOs, the biggest obstacle in entering Africa may be the limits of their own capacity. Although Chinese NGOs have been expanding rapidly in the last few years, organisations with a truly international presence have yet to appear. Whether their management experience and human resources are up to the task is a consideration that has played into MofCom’s slowness to launch a pilot project. A MofCom official said they were struggling with a number of unsolved questions such as what standards to apply to service contracts and how to select NGO partners.

Even so, the ministry and the NGOs stand at the gates of Africa, ready to risk drowning in the spittle of online vitiation.

Sixty years ago, loud and obnoxious American tourists were the butt of scorn around the world. In 1958, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer published The Ugly American, marking the beginning of a wave of criticism of American foreign policy by the public. The book played a part in the U.S. government’s decision to establish Peace Corps, an organisation charged with delivering part of foreign aid by dispatching volunteers to poor regions of the world. Politicians hoped Peace Corps would help improve Americans’ image abroad while helping young Americans, including many future diplomats, develop a deeper understanding of the world.

Sixty years later, a rising China faces a similar difficulty. In April, the Ethnics Institute of South Africa released the results of a survey of African executives on the impact of Chinese business in Africa. The survey was administered to senior managers with extensive business contacts with China in fifteen African countries. Regarding the overall reputation of Chinese companies, responses were more or less balanced: 43.3% of respondents viewed them negatively, 35.4% positively. But 55.9% held a negative view of goods and services provided by Chinese companies, compared to 22.7% who held a positive view. The worst perception was associated with Chinese companies’ sense of responsibility: only 11.1% believed they cared about environmental protection, while 53.9% said they did not. 21 and 28.3% respectively held a positive view of Chinese companies’ sense of social and economic responsibility. Respondents were similarly negative regarding Chinese companies’ employment practices.

Damage to China’s international reputation and such generalised antagonism drives up the costs of getting across to and doing business with the world. To some extent, China’s NGOs, despite their weakness, may be able to play the mitigating role of the Peace Corps. Among my interlocutors in China’s brave NGO world, the general sentiment is that the obstacles awaiting them in Africa are not important: what matters is that “the Chinese are coming.” Not the exploitative Chinese managers depicted in the BBC’s eponymous documentary, but a bunch of Chinese wanting to do good.

Hu Jianlong is an investigative journalist with the Southern Weekly newspaper in China.  He is also an alumnus of the 2013 China-Africa Reporting Project, hosted by Wits University.  Since the project, Mr Jianlong has devoted most of his time to China-in-Africa topics. Early this year he cooperated with a Madagascar reporter investigating illegal logging, and in July he was working on projects in Uganda and Kenya.

© 2024 Africa-China Reporting Project. All rights reserved. 
Terms & Conditions. 
Privacy Policy.