Foreign Aid Conditionality: Should China Emulate this Model Of Giving?

November 30, 2007

Liberian children greet China’s president, Hu Jintao, on his arrival in Monrovia. Photograph: Christopher Herwig/Reuters as seen in The Guardian

Chinese contributions to global aid, particularly in Africa, have received much attention of late. I have been mulling over a recent Center for Global Development (CGD) article on the topic written by Carol Lancaster. Among other motivating factors, Lancaster wrote this piece seeking to better understand Chinese aid practices in Africa because she was concerned that “the Chinese provide their aid largely without the conditions that typically accompany Western aid—a good human rights performance, strong economic management, environmentally responsible policies and political openness on the part of recipient governments.” Her fear being that “Chinese aid [may] discourage needed economic and political reforms in African countries.”

Yet, I’m not convinced that traditional aid conditionality is something the Chinese should seek to emulate. Political and economic reforms need to be internally driven in order to be sustainable. It doesn’t matter how valuable the ideas behind policy conditions tied to foreign aid are, when local people feel that foreigners are intervening in their political affairs, they become resentful. (Read, for example, the letters written by Ohio residents in response to a 2004 Guardian inspired letter-writing campaign from concerned UK citizens to undecided US presidential voters.) Oxford’s Paul Collier (former head of Development Research at the World Bank), in his book The Bottom Billion, provides a succinct description of the typically negative reaction to aid conditionality.

The psychological reaction to being told to do something is resistance. Any parent knows that, and it is just as true of governments as it is of children; how else can they establish their freedom? So conditionality pushed governments, and indeed whole societies, into opposing policy changes that would have been highly beneficial. Policy conditionality also messed up accountability. If governments were being ordered about by donor agencies, whom should an electorate blame if things went wrong? Governments were quick to exploit the full potential for evading responsibility. In the week when the government of Zimbabwe launched economic reforms in 1998, its Minister of Information told the local press,”They’re not our reforms, they’re the IMF’s. We had to do them.” That sort of statement not only shifted responsibility but made reforms very easy to reverse. And the government of Zimbabwe surely reversed them. (p. 109)

So do foreign aid donors then simply hand over the cash, no questions asked? No. Collier suggests that instead of providing aid conditional on policy reforms, donors could work together to establish clear governance benchmarks (ex., free press), which once achieved would make countries eligible for aid dollars. In this way, countries are making the reforms themselves prior to receiving aid money, which could prevent the type of collective resentment often tied to foreign aid.

Of course, if increasing the effectiveness of aid programs was this simple, it would have happened a long time ago. Collier is one of the many scholars (including those at the CGD) involved in the debate about how do so and conditionality is only one of the many issues on the table. It would be wonderful to have the Chinese government as full-fledged partners in this process, given China’s history of being on both the giving and receiving end of foreign aid.


2 Responses to “Foreign Aid Conditionality: Should China Emulate this Model Of Giving?”

  1. Morgan R Says:


    I’m a policy debater in Chicago, IL and we’re advocating a policy where China gives aid to Africa. So your article brought up a question.

    Consider this scenario:

    If China sent medical teams to Africa, but the teams ran out of funding (for whatever reasons), would China be angered if someone funded the medical teams but said they could only go to certain countries in Africa? ie, not Zimbabwe, Uganda, ect…

  2. lmcinhk Says:

    I’m not sure I understand your scenario… If a Chinese government aid program ran out of money, they would pack up and go home, just like a USAID program would. If outsiders came in and took over the funding/staffing of a Chinese aid program, it would no longer be a Chinese government program. Perhaps you could clarify your question. — LMC

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