China’s aid policies can shift to take heed of local communities

Published on Sep 19 2012 // article, Featured Analysis, Slide Show

China’s aid policies can shift to take heed of local communities

Illustration: Sun Ying

Illustration: Sun Ying

Over the past decade, China has emerged as an important aid donor. The framework of Chinese aid differs from that of the Western states which have traditionally sponsored the aid industry. This is understandable for historical and political reasons. However, in order to be effective and still serve China’s best interests, Chinese aid should be re-focused toward a greater engagement with beneficiary communities and social actors.
At least since the end of the Cold War, mainstream aid organizations have based their programming on a rhetorical commitment to international human rights and humanitarian law.

However, Western aid tends to be directed toward countries and issues of strategic importance to donors, which calls into question the political impartiality of such assistance.

Nevertheless, many Western aid actors take seriously the commitment to working with and for beneficiary communities.

In contrast, Chinese relief and development assistance does not claim to be help beneficiaries to access internationally agreed rights and norms, and standards of well-being. Rather, Chinese aid is largely delivered through state structures. As such, it tends to reinforce existing, state-centric power relations.

This approach has been criticized, particularly in conflict-affected and other developing countries, where the state’s legitimacy is challenged, and ruling regimes are often unable or even unwilling to protect civilian populations and promote human security.

Among mainstream Western aid agencies, there is often a disconnect between international organizations, and beneficiaries and other local actors, particularly in the conflict-affected “failed states” where aid is most needed. International and local actors often have different priorities, and sometimes different values and attitudes. Such discontinuities are set to become more prominent in an era of declining Western economic and political capital, which is likely to be marked by increasingly frequent and devastating natural disasters.

In this context, disaster response will become more regionalized with China and other countries playing prominent roles. The future, in South and East Asia at least, may be characterized by “a humanitarianism with Asian values.”

For example, following the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, while most Western aid actors insisted on a rights-based approach, Chinese and other regional governments channeled aid through state structures, with no conditionalities regarding the promotion of rights or local participation.

As China and other non-OECD countries become more prominent aid actors, they will begin to challenge Western approaches to humanitarianism. These comments are notwithstanding. China may need to revise its approach to foreign aid, in order to gain continued strategic benefits and ensure that the programs it supports are sustainable, and help those most in need. In a number of contexts, it is not only Western aid agencies and activists who have critiqued China’s approach, but also local civil and political actors.

For instance, in October 2011 the Myanmese President Thein Sein suspended a controversial Chinese-built mega-dam project at Myitsone, the confluence of the symbolically important Irrawaddy River. As well as a strategic blow to China, the controversy around this project has stoked growing anti-Chinese sentiments.

In the context of reforms in Myanmar, and that country’s opening toward the West, these are serious strategic issues. If China had done more to listen to local concerns, and design its aid and investment strategies accordingly, such a debacle might have been avoided.

The largest Chinese investment in Myanmar is the construction of a gas pipeline and related rail and road links, connecting the Rakhine coast of the Indian Ocean to the landlocked Yunnan Province. This project could reduce China’s reliance on the strategically vulnerable Strait of Malacca.

However, like Myitsone, the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline has been dogged by controversy, because of local communities’ concerns regarding land confiscation, inequitable compensation, environmental damage and other negative consequences.

China should pay more attention to these concerns in the future. It is necessary to address such issues in order to ensure that beneficiary countries appreciate the benefits of Chinese assistance. China’s aid policy is in part at least intended to secure access to natural resource and other strategic goods.

In order for this approach to work in the middle-to-long-term, the programs and projects supported need to be sustainable, and have at least a degree of local ownership.

By taking some lessons from the rights-based approach, and doing more to ensure that its aid programs are based on consultations with, and is responsive to the concerns of, local communities, China’s aid policy will be strengthened.

By engaging more effectively with civil society actors and communities, China can develop positive and sustainable relationships with developing (and particularly) neighboring countries. In this way, China can be both a good neighbor and a successful aid donor.

The author is an independent writer and consultant, specializing in humanitarian and ethnic issues in Myanmar and Southeast Asia.