International aid to Africa, and the way it is being reported in the media, remains a controversial topic. When the UK government announced recently that it would cut off aid to South Africa in 2015, choosing instead to base its future relationship with the country on trade rather than aid, it was met by a furious reaction from the South African government. This step was interpreted by some as related to South Africa’s inclusion in the BRICS group of emerging economies and closer ties to China. The British foreign secretary William Hague said that the country would not ‘continue to give aid to countries that are raising their incomes, that have growing economies’ – which is why Britain had also stopped its aid to India and China before. This announcement reminds one of the debate a few years ago following the publication of the Zambian-born, Oxford-trained economist Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid: Why Aid is not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa. In her book, Moyo argued that the billions of dollars in international aid sent from rich countries to African countries are not making a difference to the economic prosperity of the continent. Moyo’s conservative views that favoured global markets – investement and trade – above aid, have been critized as ‘dead wrong’, naïve and misinformed. Her positive view of China’s engagement in Africa was also based on the notion that China brings an ‘elixir’ of job opportunities, investment and trade that would transform African countries.
The distinction between trade and aid, and how China’s involvement in Africa should be analysed and understood, was again the topic of heated debate recently following the release of a report by the organisation AidData on Chinese aid in Africa. This report, which was quickly picked up by global mainstream media like the quality British newspaper The Guardian (who published an impressive interactive story about the report), stated that China had committed $75 billion on aid and development projects in Africa over the last decade. It was heralded as one of the ‘most ambitious attempts’ to see through the veil of secrecy that surrounds the Chinese government’s financing of development projects. The Guardian saw this as a sign of “Beijing’s escalating soft power ‘charm offensive’ to secure political and economic clout on the continent”. It was also seen as a challenge to what had up until the release of the report been seen as China’s main reason for involvement in Africa, namely the search for natural resources. However, the report indicates that there are much fewer mining projects than health, education and social infrastructure projects. These projects include initiatives like a malaria prevention centre in Monrovia, Liberia; a National School for Visual Arts in Maputo and an opera house in Algiers. The report also shows that Chinese government support further includes sending doctors and teachers to African countries, Chinese language classes abroad and sport stadiums and concert halls. The Guardian concluded that Beijing’s support for these social and cultural projects, and the relatively small proportion of what would qualify as ‘official development assistance’, have provided evidence to commentators that see China’s involvement in Africa as being underpinned by a stronger geopolitical agenda than the ‘dominant narrative’ had suggested up until now.
The AidData report was however immediately criticized as creating a misleading impression about Chinese development assistance to Africa. Deborah Brautigam, Professor and Director of the International Development Program at Johns Hopkins University and one of the foremost international scholars on China-Africa relations, slammed the figures in the report. The figures contained in the AidData report were ‘way off’, she said on her blog. The main problem with the AidData figures, according to Brautigam, was the methodology followed to arrive at the conclusion about China’s ‘soft power’ efforts. The AidData report relied largely on media reports of Chinese project financing. Brautigam admits that the data might provide a good start for research into Chinese development aid, but even while valuable as an exploratory attempt, the report cannot yet hope to provide any conclusions. “The main problem is that the teams that have been collecting the data and their supervisors simply don’t know enough about China in Africa, or how to check media reports, track down the realities of a project, and dig into the story to find out what really happened. You can start with media reports, but it is highly problematic to stop there,” Brautigam writes.
In subsequent debates around the report – which created quite a stir online, as may be seen in the summary provided by the China-Africa project – it was also pointed out that the AidData report and the surrounding media discourses do little to shine a light on the non-state engagements between China and Africa that are bound to become much more influential in future. In a recent book chapter in the South African Human Rights Commission’s State of the Nation publication, Yoon Jung Park and Chris Alden distinguish between what they refer to as the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ dimensions of China in South Africa. While the ‘upstairs’ dimension – official ties between South Africa and China, especially within the BRICS formation – is of increasing importance, the ‘downstairs’ dimension of Chinese migrants in the country is bound to intensify whatever official relations exist. The media usually concentrates on the ‘upstairs’ engagement between states, on the level of political and economic ties, but it is the ‘downstairs’ relations that will shape the way that people experience and view the China-Africa dynamic in years to come. As pointed out by Howard French in a podcast following the AidData controversy, the interpersonal contact between Chinese migrants and Africans are likely to become increasingly important in how the relationship between Africa and China will play out in years to come. The creation of new communities of Chinese migrants in Africa, the everyday interactions between Chinese and Africans in Guangzhou and Johannesburg, and how these will change the social landscape of Africa (and also China, as could be seen in a recent documentary on the Dutch broadcaster VPRO), is an area that is worthy of much more media attention.
This column was also published in China Daily, 31 May 2013