Africa Watch

China’s chequered humanitarian aid record in Africa

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China’s rapidly growing presence and influence in Africa has led to a heated debate about the true nature thereof and its implications for the continent.

Aid is an important policy instrument for China among its various engagements with Africa and is indeed a top recipient of Chinese aid. The aid to Africa has however, raised many questions, such as its composition, goal and nature.

Officially, China provides eight types of foreign aid: complete projects, goods and materials, technical cooperation, human resource development cooperation, medical assistance, emergency humanitarian aid, volunteer programs, and debt relief.

The scope of China’s humanitarian aid to Africa makes for interesting reading, particularly when compared to the aid provided by its main competitor, the United States.

Complex reality

Despite Chinese leaders’ often repeated claim that China’s assistance to Africa is totally selfless and altruistic, the reality is far more complex.

In January 2014, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, while visiting Africa reiterated that, “the right concept of morality and benefits is a banner of China's diplomacy.”

According to Wang, “China will neither embark on the plundering road of colonialists nor seek to profit selfishly as done by some other countries. Instead, China hopes to become prosperous together with African countries. During the process, China will give more consideration to the needs of African countries so that they can benefit more through cooperation.”

In response to this statement by the Chinese foreign minister it could be argued that the “morality-benefit concept” not only refers to letting African partners share more benefits when China is engaged with them, but it also means that China needs to offer generous help when African people are in extreme difficulty and face humanitarian challenges.

Triggered scrutiny

What triggered this scrutiny into China’s humanitarian aid to Africa was the upcoming visit of China’s foreign minister to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the three countries in West Africa most affected by the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in December 2013.

Beijing maintains that the unselfish contribution of Chinese medical personnel played a significant part to combat the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and help to prevent it spreading to other regions.

There might be other items on the agenda during the visit but foreign minister Wang will exploit China’s role during the Ebola outbreak to improve Beijing’s image in the region.

He will also try to thwart any advantage the US might have gained during President Obama’s recent Africa visit. China cannot but feel apprehensive about the strengthening of relations between the US and Nigeria, the powerhouse in West Africa, after President Buhari’s recent visit to Washington on invitation of President Obama.

With the US promising Nigeria new and more military assistance to defeat Boko Haram, the fundamentalist terror group which is terrorising north-east Nigeria and creating instability and unease across most of West Africa, China finds itself isolated and restricted from rendering a similar assistance.

In this regard Beijing has only itself to blame.

The official policy of refraining from getting involved in the internal affairs of its allies and trade partners excludes Beijing from providing military support to President Buhari’s new determined campaign to crush Boko Haram.        

But, the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa, the most lethal viral disease known to humankind, gave Beijing an opportunity to prove its commitment to Africa and to turn around what some see as China’s mercantilist behaviour on the continent.

In response to the urgent request for assistance Beijing sent medical personnel, medical supplies and money totalling US$20 million.

Chinese propaganda

The Chinese state media revelled in China having the moral high ground over Western countries and Japan and highlighted China’s role in reining in the Ebola epidemic. While emphasizing the “heroism” of Chinese medical teams and “selflessness” of the humanitarian aid, it also touted the country’s “rich” experience and expertise in fighting major disease outbreaks.

Apparently ignoring the Chinese cover-up and inaction during the 2003 SARS outbreak, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted WHO officials who said African countries could learn from China’s experience in addressing the 2013-2014 outbreak of the Avian flu strain H7N9 as well as from its successful investment in public health.

Critics say that China only responded to the Ebola crisis after confronted with accusations for not doing enough and point out that this was the first time that China has extended humanitarian aid to countries in Africa facing public health emergencies.

Not impressive

China’s track record in this regard is not impressive, confirmed by the admittance in a White Paper on foreign aid published by the Chinese government in July 2014 that only 0.4 per cent of Beijing’s US$14.4 billion for foreign aid between 2010 and 2012, went to humanitarian causes.

However, China’s role in helping African countries fight Ebola should not be downplayed and it remains remarkable that more health personnel was dispatched to the affected countries in West Africa as aid groups from the US, Europe, and Japan were evacuating.

There is a strongly held view in China that its contribution to the improvement of the health sector in Africa is not recognised. According to the director of the Zhejiang Normal University's Institute of African Studies China's overall history of health-care assistance to African countries has been "completely overlooked by the Western media". In the past few decades, it has built more than 20 anti-malarial centres in Africa and more than 100 000 Chinese doctors have done stints in African countries.

However, the role and contribution of the US during the same crisis put the Chinese claims and superciliousness into perspective. As a matter of fact, it reveals that assistance from the US overshadows China’s contributions by a considerable margin.

Not only did the US gave US$175 million to combat the Ebola epidemic but agreed to send 3 000 military troops to combat the spread of the virus in West Africa at a cost of  US$750 million.

PEPFAR (The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and the largest healthcare initiative to be launched by one country to address one disease best illustrate the extent of US humanitarian aid to Africa.

Signed into law by President Bush and continued by President Obama PEPFAR was initially a five year (2003-2008), US$15 billion commitment by the US government to tackle the global HIV and AIDS epidemic with Africa the major recipient.

In July 2008, PEPFAR was renewed and intended to spend US$48 billion between 2009 and 2013 on programmes globally to combat HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

For the fiscal year 2015-16 the Obama Administration has budgeted R29.39billion for PEPFAR.

SOUTH Africa has been one of PEPFAR’s biggest recipients since its inception receiving over US$4.6 billion in aid to date.

Re-examine

The facts are undeniable. The US humanitarian aid to Africa dwarfs all that China offers but many African countries fiercely defend China’s role on the continent, particularly against western criticism.

Africa’s approval of China poses an intriguing question for those in the West who disapprove of China’s activities in Africa: should the West re-examine its approach to Africa in order to better address what African countries truly need?

 

by Garth Cilliers

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