What Can the U.S. Learn from China?

A little competition may go a long way towards crafting a U.S. aid strategy that is effective, sustainable, and even more appealing than a Chinese sack of cash.

May 21, 2010

Mike Tierney

This morning I went to a very interesting panel on how we can improve aid to developing countries. The fourth in a series by Oxfam America on fostering ownership in development, the panel was hosted by Foreign Policy's Josh Rogan and featured representatives from Oxfam, the Liberian government, and civil society.


Although others will summarize the event in its entirety, what was most interesting to me was keynote speaker and panelist John Githongo's bold statement about the decline of U.S. aid money's influence in Africa. According to Githongo, the "ground is moving" beneath the feet of the U.S. as countries such as India, China, and Brazil give increasing amounts of aid to the region. He paraphrased a common saying, that "The U.S. walks in, lectures us, and leaves. China walks in, doesn't lecture us, and leaves the money." However, he was quick to stress that although the U.S. may be beginning to lose the numbers battle in Africa, their ability to serve as a "beacon" of important values such as free association and due process remains solid.


For those of us interested in aid data, John Githongo's comments echo other concerns that traditional ways of measuring aid are failing to capture the changing landscape of development. For example, a recent and excellently well-researched piece on the state of foreign aid by Anup Shah at Global Issues apparently still includes only the 23 DAC donors in its analysis, despite the availability of information on Brazil, India, China, and others. Although the DAC donors represent by and large the largest bilateral donors, Mr. Githongo makes it clear that in some regions leaving non-DAC donors out of the equation will simply give you the wrong answer.


Not that any of this is new. Scholars and even Foreign Policy have been talking about the rise of aid from countries like China for years. The novel twist, for me at least, was the shape of the debate. Instead of an American lecturing Africans on the dangers of aid without environmental safeguards or local hiring clauses, an African was lecturing Americans on how conditionality was making their money irrelevant. The U.S., perhaps for the first time, is becoming a price-taker instead of a price-maker in the development world.


As information from non-traditional donors becomes available through AidData, I hope that the activities of these donors and the alternative lending practices that they are offering many African governments will help shape the next generation of U.S. foreign aid policy in a positive way. A little competition may go a long way towards crafting a U.S. aid strategy that is effective, sustainable, and even more appealing than a Chinese sack of cash.

Mike Tierney is the Hylton Professor of Government and International Relations at the College of William & Mary. He co-founded AidData and currently directs the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations.

The views expressed here are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the institutions to which the authors belong.