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This is a joint post with Lawrence MacDonald.

Browsing through Wikileaks to try to understand what the fuss was all about, Alan came on an interesting cable (10Beijing367) about African views on possible cooperation between China and Western donors on aid to Africa.  According the summary of a cable from the U.S. embassy in Beijing, reporting on the views of African diplomats stationed there:

“China’s fast, efficient, ‘no strings attached’ bilateral approach is popular in the region, as is the PRC preference for infrastructure over governance projects. African officials fear that U.S. or European interference will slow down the assistance process and tie conditions to Chinese aid. In the past, the EU angered many African countries when it proposed trilateral cooperation. The Chinese subsequently backed out of discussions citing lack of African support. In addition, African officials believe that competition between donors has had positive consequences for African development, giving the African countries options after several decades of a largely Western development model. Despite apprehensions, one official believed that U.S.-China cooperation could be positive if carried out with active African participation. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) was offered as an example of an organization that has managed to collaborate well with China in Africa.”

The cable continues:

"During a February 8 lunch, Kenyan Ambassador to China Julius Ole Sunkuli said he and other Africans were wary of the U.S.-China dialogue on Africa and felt Africa had nothing to gain from China cooperating with the international donor community. Sunkuli claimed that Africa was better off thanks to China’s practical, bilateral approach to development assistance and was concerned that this would be changed by Western interference. He said he saw no concrete benefit for Africa in even minimal cooperation. Sunkuli said Africans were frustrated by Western insistence on capacity building, which translated, in his eyes, into conferences and seminars. They instead preferred China’s focus on infrastructure and tangible projects. He also worried that Africa would lose the benefit of having some leverage to negotiate with their donors if their development partners joined forces.”

The cable also flags the backlash against Western donors initiating bilateral discussions with China on aid, without involving the recipients:

“When the EU put together a policy paper on trilateral development cooperation in Africa, many African countries were annoyed because they were not consulted on the issue. They argued that the third party in these nominally trilateral discussions was conspicuously absent.”

Like a lot of what’s in Wikileaks, none of this is actually surprising. Still, given the amount of handwringing among traditional donors about China’s role in the region, it’s refreshing to hear about the situation from an African perspective. Makes us wonder, too, exactly what DfID did to win plaudits! CGD work on China’s role in Africa includes a recent paper by Benedicte Vibe Christensen, China in Africa: A Macroeconomic Perspective, which attempts to look at the situation from a Chinese perspective. Given the State Department’s role in overseeing USAID, it’s likely that the additional cable releases yet to come will shed further light on what until now have been private discussions on aid.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.