Analysis | How trends in U.S. aid can better inform foreign policy in sub-Saharan Africa

Alex Mederos

The following blog post draws on a report the author researched and published through the ISD Fellows in Diplomacy program. Read the full report.

Construction of new buildings (Image: Ivan Bandura on Unsplash)

A key component of the Trump administration’s approach to international development assistance was the Clear Choice framework. Clear Choice framed global development within great power competition with China and pushed recipients of U.S. aid to supplant Chinese assistance with that of the United States. In practice, the Trump administration faced backlash from partners in Africa who argued that forcing a choice between the two largest bilateral donors placed African countries at a disadvantage because China continues to provide necessary infrastructure financing that the United States does not.

While the Trump administration’s approach sought to strengthen the capacity of partner countries to respond to their own local development challenges, components of the policy left some of the United States’ largest African partners feeling pressured to choose U.S. partnership over domestic development priorities. Despite the hard push against partnership with China, African countries continued to sign Chinese construction contracts throughout the latter half of the 2010s.

Effective bilateral foreign assistance equally addresses the development priorities of partner countries and achieves foreign policy objectives. Therefore, the United States should identify and leverage its current comparative advantage in Africa to not only strengthen diplomatic relationships but also recommit to providing assistance that addresses the development needs and priorities of recipient countries. Given the rapidly increasing rate of Chinese infrastructure development, the United States no longer has an absolute advantage in Africa. Unlike China, however, the United States is one of the few bilateral donors that invests directly in democracy and governance programming (D&G). Leveraging this comparative advantage, the new U.S. administration can help strengthen civil society, improve service delivery in auxiliary sectors, and indirectly hold China accountable on social and environmental issues.

In new research published through Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, I analyzed trends in the distribution of bilateral U.S. official development assistance to 49 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa between 2010 and 2019. The analysis builds on decades of research by David Dollar and Victoria Levin, and Veronica Penciacova and Daniel Kauffman measuring the aid selectivity of donors. Based on the data analysis, I found that from 2016 to 2019, official development assistance was significantly correlated with Chinese construction contracts throughout the region.

There are two possible statistical explanations for this trend. The first is that the rise in Chinese construction contracts over the three-year period caused a U.S. policy response to counter it. This is unlikely given the decentralized decision-making process that governs the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the fact that a change in policy often takes years to manifest in actual programming.

The second, more likely explanation is that both Chinese construction contracts and U.S. official development assistance rose simultaneously in the same countries. This explanation implies that African partners were just as willing to work with Chinese counterparts as with the United States, despite the Trump administration’s hard stance against partnership. Based on this data output, it is clear that a policy in which African partners are forced to choose between donors is ineffective. Rather, the United States should engage more with African countries who are embracing Chinese partnership, not less, by strategically deploying aid to address both the development priorities of partner countries and U.S. foreign policy concerns.

Despite countries’ willingness to collaborate with both the U.S. and China, there remain quite a few criticisms of Chinese development finance. In particular, China does not include social and environmental safeguards within their bilateral contracts, they rarely share information and data with international actors and stakeholders, and perpetuate debt in already indebted countries.

This piece focuses solely on how U.S. aid can help hold China accountable on social and environmental conditions. When Chinese construction contracts do not contain social and environmental preconditions, it puts the communities that surround Chinese infrastructure projects at risk. In one example from 2012, China General Nuclear Power (CGN), a state-owned company, purchased 90% of Namibia’s Husab mine. The Chinese and Namibian governments are expected to benefit greatly from the mine’s output, as it was expected at the time of purchase to become the second largest uranium mine in the world. While the mine will provide some Namibians with well paying, albeit dangerous jobs, the project puts surrounding communities at risk of water and air pollution.

Investing in more D&G programming to strengthen civil society is the best way to increase domestic pressures on Chinese companies to comply with internationally-recognized environmental standards and social protections, by providing communities and stakeholders with more autonomy and political voice. In the example above, Namibians cannot hold Chinese companies directly accountable to the social and environmental needs of their communities. However, as a democracy, Namibians can lobby their elected officials to request Chinese companies to adopt such standards and protections during contract negotiations. Investing in D&G programming that strengthens civil society will elevate the voices of the community members who live alongside Chinese-backed projects like Husab. In doing so, D&G programs will also highlight issues of environmental degradation and worker’s rights, while pressuring partner country governments to be more transparent with the type of financial agreements they are entering into with Chinese companies and the government.

While D&G programming can dually achieve development outcomes and solve U.S. foreign policy challenges, it is also important to consider the political and economic realities of the countries in which the United States implements D&G programs. There are between five and 10 countries in the 49-country sample who have been or are currently considered democracies according to Freedom House, including Namibia. Therefore, direct D&G programming may be inappropriate. Incorporating good governance principles into all sectors where the United States does programming will not only improve service delivery but also highlight the United States’ commitment to more responsive and effective aid based on the priorities of partner countries.

The United States has an important comparative advantage in Africa because it is one of the few bilateral donors that actively invests in D&G programming. The Biden administration should leverage this comparative advantage not only to improve development outcomes in partner countries by improving service delivery and strengthening civil society, but also to address the foreign policy challenges that the United States currently faces because of China’s increasing influence in Africa.

Elevating the political voices of communities who live alongside Chinese-backed projects is one indirect way to hold both Chinese companies and national governments accountable to the environmental and social needs of citizens. Applying a blanket solution across the region, however, is also an ineffective use of resources. Aid distribution should be informed by the priorities of our African partners. While data serves an important purpose, to best understand those priorities requires ongoing engagement and partnership, especially with those countries who are signing large Chinese contracts.

Alexander Mederos is an MSFS graduate, concentrating in international development. Prior to MSFS, Alexander served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana where he worked with community stakeholders to build capacity in the HIV/AIDS response.

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