April 29, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Yin and Yang of Foreign Aid

Here is the Yin and the Yang of development aid spending: In the U.S., it is on the chopping block, threatened by budget cutters sharpening their knives; in China it is on an expansion course, favored by a government seeking to accumulate influence and riches in the developing world, particularly Africa.

Last week, China’s Information Office of the State Council issued a white paper on foreign aid while in the U.S. government forces were massing for the 2012 budget battle.  China said its foreign aid has “increased rapidly,” growing by nearly 30% a year since 2004, and indicated its intention to “strengthen foreign aid in the fields of agriculture, infrastructure, education, healthcare, human resources and clean energy.”  In the U.S., proponents of foreign aid are fighting to hold back cuts, hoping to at best keep spending levels steady.

In its discussion of the distribution of foreign aid, the white paper places agriculture at the top.  “China makes agriculture, rural development and poverty reduction in developing countries priorities of its foreign aid,” the white paper states.  It talks about building farms and agro-technology demonstration centers, constructing irrigation and water-harvesting systems, supplying agriculture machinery and farm implements, dispatching agriculture experts to spread knowledge of new technologies, and providing agricultural training in the recipient countries.

And the paper says this: “China has been increasing its aid for agriculture and grain production in particular.  In recent years, food security has become a global issue.”

This realization – food security has become a global issue — is fighting for broad acceptance in the U.S. government.  In its Feed the Future initiative, the Obama administration has made ending hunger through agriculture development a top foreign policy priority.  It is an initiative that takes a longer view, focusing on the importance of the smallholder farmers of the developing world in increasing production and contributing to the global food supply, which is coming under greater strains from rising world population and the rising prosperity of that population.  But this long-term vision is threatened by the immediate focus on cutting government spending.

This isn’t to say that China is a model giver of foreign aid.  Far from it.  The white paper didn’t disclose funding levels – neither overall annual totals nor specific country amounts — other than saying that by the end of 2009, the Communist government had provided a total of nearly $39 billion in foreign aid.  That puts it far behind the U.S., which has been the world leader in total amounts of foreign assistance of all kind, be it development aid or emergency relief.

The white paper proclaimed that a basic feature of China’s foreign aid policy is “imposing no political conditions.”  That is as it should be: aid is aid, not a political cudgel.  But China’s aid remains blind to the political and social forces in the recipient countries.  China gives significant assistance and investment to a number of repressive governments, increasing its political and business positions in those countries.

Also, on the agriculture front, it remains to be seen whether China has a more selfish interest in Africa than resolving that continent’s hunger crisis.  For the issue of global food security is also very much a China issue.  After engineering a successful agriculture transformation in past decades, bringing many of its people out of hunger, China is facing limits on its own arable land and water.  That has the country looking elsewhere for food production, particularly Africa.

The white paper said that by the end of 2009, “China had aided 221 agricultural projects in other developing countries – 35 farms, 47 agro-technology experiment and promotion stations, 11 animal husbandry projects, 15 fisheries projects, 47 farmland-irrigation and water-conservancy projects, and 66 other types of agricultural projects.”  And it has pledged to do more, including dispatching thousands of agriculture technicians to developing countries.

We will know in coming years whether the fruits of these efforts will remain in those recipient countries or make their way back to China.  Many in Africa are wondering whether countries like China, India, Saudi Arabia and others accumulating land on the continent see Africa’s soil, sun and water as natural resources to extract and export, like oil.  Are these aid projects and investments to boost production in Africa meant to feed Africans, or to feed Chinese back home?

The white paper doesn’t answer that question.  But it does make this clear: food security has become a global issue.  It should be a top priority in budgets everywhere – be they in Beijing or Washington DC.


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The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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