US researchers aim to shed light on Africa aid

Updated: 2013-05-09 11:21

By Joseph Boris (China Daily)

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US researchers aim to shed light on Africa aid

China's funding of development assistance in Africa has for years concerned stakeholders there as well as Western aid donors because the Chinese government doesn't disclose information about its activities on the continent.

As aid from China to African countries grows, along with the separate category of bilateral trade, others have been left to estimate the level and nature of Chinese assistance. Critics have charged that China's aid programs in Africa are mainly about exploiting natural resources to feed its own economy and that a Chinese willingness to do business with corrupt African governments undercuts policies touted by Western donors such as project governance and environmental sustainability.

China disputes such claims, and there is far from a consensus among aid experts that the dire accusations are true. But Beijing's preference for secrecy in financing and administering aid projects in developing countries fuels uncertainty. In an official declaration at the end of a global aid donors' meeting in 2011, China said "the principle of transparency should apply to North-South cooperation but that it should not be seen as a standard for South-South cooperation". (The latter term refers to aid from one developing country to another.)

A new database built by researchers in the United States aims to bring transparency to Chinese aid in Africa, by using media reports and crowd-sourced information.

Now online at, the database is an attempt by a partnership involving the College of William and Mary, Brigham Young University and the group Development Gateway to inform the debate over China-to-Africa aid without rendering a judgment therein.

"Our vantage point on this is that we're not going to be able to draw strong conclusions until we have reliable and comprehensive data that can be replicated and shared," Brad Parks, executive director of the AidData partnership, told China Daily.

"This is not a 'gotcha' organization; there is a lack of transparency in Chinese development finance, and we're motivated in that we just want better data. We think there's strength in numbers and we think we have a shared interest in creating a single information repository," he said.

Information collected in the database shows that China, despite being stereotyped as solely interested in extracting natural resources or building infrastructure in Africa, has financed projects in health, education and "bricks-and-mortar institution-building" for national governments' offices, Parks said.

That Chinese officials regard spending abroad as a state secret was summed up, Parks said, in a response his research team received from the Ministry of Commerce, which oversees some of the country's foreign aid: "Everyone who needs to know about our generosity already knows."

While emphasizing that he and his research colleagues take no position on what's motivating Chinese aid, Parks also said the database isn't meant to provide a definitive, "top line" assessment of what the numbers add up to.

For example, he said, media coverage since the database and an accompanying Center for Global Development report went public last week has focused on a finding that China allocated $75 billion on 1,673 development projects in 50 African countries from 2000 to 2011 - about the same value as US-funded projects to Africa during those years, as measured by international standards of official development assistance (ODA) and other official flows (OOF).

Although those figures are accurate, Parks pointed out that much of the media coverage has described all of these Chinese projects as "aid", but he and his co-authors don't make this claim in their report. They divide Chinese government-supported projects into categories they devised, including "ODA-like," "OOF-like" and "Official Vague". The third of these is meant to account for the many Chinese development-finance initiatives that could fall under either of the other two categories but for which insufficient data exist to make a determination.

Such distinctions are important in the complex, multilayered world of development. Furthermore, aid is separate from foreign direct investment. Chinese FDI in Africa was nearly $20 billion last year.

China recently disclosed that its current level of foreign-aid spending is about 40 billion yuan ($6.4 billion) a year - 0.07 percent of GDP - to over 100 countries. Half of that money goes to Africa. Chinese aid and investment has contributed more than 20 percent to African countries' economic growth over the past 13 years, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said recently.

The new database, which includes an interactive map that sorts information by country and project, is derived from Chinese- and English-language news reports. But Parks stressed those are augmented and continually updated by on-the-ground information from people who live or work near Chinese aid-project sites in Africa.

In response to criticism from some development experts that a media-based approach is unreliable and incomplete, the team said in a posting on that it doesn't only use news reports and refines data "through triangulation of multiple sources of information".

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