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Comparing Norwegian and Chinese aid strategies

Development aid has different traditions in Norway and China. A new research project will study what the two countries can learn from one another.

Road in Malawi   Photo: Dan Banik

While there is no doubt that China is an important actor in international development assistance, the country has been criticised for only providing aid that serves its own interests. However, many of China’s development aid projects have proven successful for the recipients.

“We will study similarities and differences between Norwegian and Chinese development assistance strategies and identify the positive impacts of each country’s practices,” says Professor Dan Banik.

Banik is the Research Director of the Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo, and is heading the three-year research project, What works? Why? And for Whom? Impact of Norwegian and Chinese Development Assistance in Malawi and Zambia.

The project has received NOK 4.8 million in research funding. The Norwegian and Chinese researchers involved will carry out in-depth field work, study development aid activities first-hand, as well as observe, analyse and provide insights based on research about the aid efforts in Malawi and Zambia.  

The research team will primarily focus on the impact of Norwegian and Chinese development assistance strategies related to food security and women’s rights. 

Success stories

Banik intends to highlight successful initiatives and activities in international aid and development.

“Research has focused unilaterally on what has failed. I think much can be learned from studying what works. Our project seeks to understand, describe and explain what it is that makes certain development aid projects a success,” Banik says.

The research project is being conducted in collaboration with researchers based at the University of Malawi, University of Zambia and China Agricultural University. Banik is fairly confident that the results will show that Norwegians and Chinese have many important lessons to learn from one another.

Different traditions within development assistance

One of the main challenges is to study which method of development aid is most effective or, rather, what aspects of the Norwegian and Chinese practices work best. 

Norway tends to provide aid directly to the national budgets of recipient countries whereas China considers that type of support to be a poor choice in that it promotes abuse and corruption. China prefers to support individual projects carried out by Chinese companies. It does not trust the authorities in recipient countries and therefore wants to be directly responsible for the implementation of the projects.   

Business model

China’s approach to development assistance appears to revolve around a business model. Traditionally the country excels at developing infrastructure, and provides concessional loans for new projects. The Chinese choose to provide a form of development aid where they stand to gain something in return, and view this as a win-win model for both parties. However, the Chinese development assistance model is changing.

“Malawi is among the poorest nations in the world and has no significant natural resources of interest, but China still provides substantial development assistance,” Banik observes.

Preliminary results from Malawi show that even though China prefers to have Chinese enterprises in charge of infrastructure development projects, responsibility for future maintenance and management is handed over to the Malawian authorities. Nor is maximising profits the main incentive for the Chinese companies involved in China’s development assistance strategy. Numerous private enterprises have subsequently invested in Malawi or in neighbouring countries.

“The primary incentive for Chinese firms to participate in aid projects is to enhance their reputation within recipient countries. Experience from implementing a major project helps these companies establish contacts and networks, which in turn are important for most Chinese actors as they weigh in the possibility of investing their own funds in new local contexts,” Banik adds.

Changes in Chinese practices

So far, the results show that the conventional model of development assistance is undergoing transformation and that Chinese authorities must adapt to new circumstances and complex demands for more long-term assistance from recipient countries and their leaders. Unlike Western donors, China does not have a development aid agency that can coordinate requests for aid and monitor implementation of various projects. This has opened up possibilities for Chinese firms to offer a variety of services to the Chinese authorities such as, for example, feasibility studies before a potential development assistance project is sanctioned.    

“Chinese companies are becoming increasingly conscious of their own role as knowledge enterprises in Africa. This could mark the beginning of new forms of public-private partnerships,” claims Banik.

The human rights model

Norway is explicitly interested in contributing to develop democracy and human rights, to promote the right to food, water and health care and improve the status and position of women. The Chinese see it as Western arrogance to insist on gender equality and human rights, and have no tradition for this. They place no importance whatsoever on governance issues.

The project will study gender equality and examine whether the position of women has improved as a result of Norwegian and Chinese development aid projects. One question to examine is whether the Norwegian emphasis on gender equality in fact enhances gender equality, or whether the same is achieved through China’s practices even though gender is not an explicit focus for Chinese development assistance.

The project aims to generate high-quality, peer-reviewed articles and books in collaboration with African and Chinese researchers.

“The Chinese are interested in learning more about development aid, but I am uncertain whether all the findings will be disseminated within China. The only way to implement this research project is in collaboration with Chinese colleagues. Otherwise we would not have gained access to the Chinese development aid projects,” states Banik, who also has a position as Adjunct Professor in Beijing.

By Atle Christiansen, Mediepartner
Published Jan. 21, 2016 1:20 PM - Last modified Jan. 26, 2016 2:10 PM