What is the reality of Chinese humanitarian aid in Africa ?


The great interest of this article by Alicia Piveteau is to deal with an important and little-known subject, that of China’s policy in Africa in terms of development aid and even humanitarian aid. The phenomenon is relatively recent, poorly documented and has limited sources of information and often of official origin. Given the nature of the political regime of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it is important to be lucid. Indeed, Chinese CCP assistance is provided by a regime without pluralism of parties, trade unions and an independent press. In addition, China is seriously abusing its minorities and opponents. It is therefore important not to confuse the assistance of NGOs from democratic countries and States of Law with the regime of President Xi Jinping for life. The rules of neutrality, impartiality and independence of humanitarian NGOs in France and Europe do not apply in the case of the Chinese Communist Party, so China’s aid must be seen as a means of achieving its political ambitions and commercial interests. We invite any reader who has been confronted with China’s assistance in Africa to send us their testimony at info@defishumanitaires.com

Is humanitarian diplomacy the latest strategy adopted by Beijing in Africa? What is certain is that it is one of the priority areas for Chinese action on the continent. Far from Western concepts and principles, the development of Chinese humanitarian actions is a growing phenomenon that needs to be understood in order to better understand it.

From development aid to humanitarian aid

What the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) calls development aid does not meet the criteria set by the OECD. For the institution, official development assistance (ODA) includes grants and loans on favourable terms as well as transparency in financing mechanisms. Military aid and aid for purely commercial purposes are excluded. Transparency and the purpose of this aid are the main Chinese shortcomings in integrating the Development Assistance Committee (DAC). For its part, Beijing borrows three financing mechanisms: interest-free loan, grants and concessional loans. The latter category is the most common method, with the main actors being the China Export Import Bank and the China Development Bank, both attached to the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM). Between China and OECD countries, there are two visions and methodologies that coexist and could eventually compete with each other; matching the OECD specifications is not stated as an objective to be achieved.

As China’s presence in Africa continues to grow, one-off humanitarian aid actions are being combined indiscriminately with development aid. The projects under the China International Development Cooperation Administration (CIDCA) speak for themselves. Created in 2018 with a budget of USD 18 million in 2019, it becomes the central aid platform and leads a wide range of projects. Examples include satellite equipment and television distribution programmes in Rwanda and Nigeria, technical reinforcement programmes for rice production in Guinea Bissau and the introduction of fibre optics in Pakistan. Geographically, aid projects related to telecommunications development are largely located along the new Silk Roads. On humanitarian emergency themes, in June 2019, CIDCA announced the delivery of 6,500 tonnes of food aid to Somalia and Southern Sudan.


As with food imports, China-Africa medical cooperation is an axis valued by Beijing to demonstrate the virtuous and disinterested aspect of Chinese humanitarian projects in Africa. The medical sector makes it possible to combine humanitarian aid and infrastructure construction. The case of Niger is significant: initially present through the Sino-Uranium state company for the country’s wealth, many infrastructures are built there by Chinese groups, including the Niamey hospital by Bejing Urban Construction Group. Another example is the Ebola control and prevention programme in the DRC, which was strengthened in August 2019 with the dispatch of new medical teams. According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are about a thousand doctors and 45 medical teams in 45 African countries.

The provision of Chinese humanitarian aid is a phenomenon that has been taking shape since 2010. OCHA’s rankings reflect this: of the 25 largest humanitarian aid donor countries, China emerged in 2007 and reached 20th place in 2012. In this respect, the PCC publishes in 2011 and 2014 a White Paper “Foreign Aid policy” setting out policy guidelines and aid mechanisms. The first characteristic is that the aid is agreed bilaterally, State-to-State, outside international systems, with the exception of the Syrian case. The second feature is that efforts in Africa are focused on five countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and the DRC.

Chinese NGOs: the rise of a paradoxical concept

The very terminology of Chinese NGOs raises questions about the nature and objectives of these structures: to what extent can an NGO authorized, attached and funded by the CCP claim to be a non-governmental organization? Their proximity to the central government suggests that they may be carrying Beijing’s political and economic intentions, and therefore outside the principle of independence that characterizes humanitarian aid. From this reflection emerged the terminology of GONGO, Government Sponsored Non-Governmental Organizations.

Until 2015 Only the Red Cross Society of China and the China Charity Foundation had a real legal existence and the state agreement to operate outside the national territory. It was on this date, after the earthquake that struck Nepal, that the turning point in the history of “Chinese NGOs” took place. On this occasion, a consortium of 50 NGOs is created between Chinese GONGOs and foreign NGOs (China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, Amity Foundation, Oxfam Hong Kong, etc.). In a second step, the Chinese structures are grouped together in the China Association for NGO Cooperation (CANGO). The association claims to have 460,000 NGOs registered with the State; however, only about 50 of them can carry out actions outside the territory.

How is humanitarian aid organized within the Chinese state machinery? Broadly speaking, the Council of State decides on the main guidelines for the humanitarian aid to be allocated. Secondly, the Emergency Office mainly delegates to MOFCOM the implementation of the directives via public companies. The latter are also strongly encouraged to develop aid activities as part of the new Silk Roads. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with the embassies, is also a path used to set up humanitarian aid schemes.

As for the GONGOs, they are under the authority of the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Recently, the importance of this ministry has increased with the increase in the number of staff and activities related to GONGOs. It can be seen that despite the substantial increase in GONGOs, most of the aid remains distributed by MOFCOM. It is precisely this link between the Ministry of Commerce and humanitarian aid that questions the real interests of Chinese humanitarian projects.


Aid in all its forms: security in China-Africa cooperation

Until 2010, Beijing followed a principle of non-intervention in civil and intra-state conflicts, but driven by the deteriorating security climate in African regions where China had economic interests, a paradigm shift is taking place.

The CCP does not establish a formal link between humanitarian aid and peacekeeping operations. However, all its actions are coherent and part of a long-term vision for the African continent. While China is not an exemplary actor in multilateral forums, it provides a significant share of peacekeeper quotas for PKOs in Africa. In 2014, within the framework of UNMISMA (United Nations Integrated Multidimensional Mission for Stabilization in Mali), Beijing, through the People’s Liberation Army, is sending a contingent of 413 soldiers in 2019. As for UNMIS (United Nations Mission in Southern Sudan), 331 peacekeepers were sent in September 2019. In total, China is the 11th largest contributor to UN forces in the world.

At the same time, since Burkina Faso’s recognition of China in 2018, it has announced its intention to help the G5 Sahel. In June 2019, outside international institutions, the first China-Africa Forum for Peace and Security was held in Beijing, bringing together some fifty African and Chinese military leaders. On the other hand, SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) reminds us that between 2013 and 2017, China is the second largest arms supplier in sub-Saharan Africa.

Chinese aid in the global humanitarian system

The increased participation in peacekeeping operations, the development of GONGOs and the structuring of the humanitarian sector reflect several Chinese political objectives. On the international scene, China is looking for confidence and prestige. At the African level, it plays on the discourse of South-South cooperation and strengthens these bilateral partnerships with African States and institutions. That being said, the strong economic interests behind these political ambitions must not be overshadowed. While China is trying to break away from the recurring accusation of energy diplomacy in Africa, a large part of humanitarian aid is sent to the East, along the land and sea routes of the new silk routes.

The humanitarian sector and aid NGOs are models that, once taken up by China, highlight the differences in perceptions about the future problems of the African continent. If Chinese humanitarian aid, through GONGO, is destined to spread, we must understand it and consider its place in the humanitarian system. Would Chinese actions compete with or complement international aid? According to the Humanitarian Policy Group’s conclusions, this aid must be welcomed so as not to create anti-Western sentiment and thus not to create two competing aid mechanisms. A lack of coordination between the two systems coupled with China’s tendency to provide significant assistance in a particular area could be both a waste of time and a factor of disproportions in humanitarian aid responses. Despite the economic and political aims of Chinese humanitarian aid, the question of its place in the global humanitarian system will continue to arise. Beyond the Chinese case, more and more emerging countries such as those on the Arabian Peninsula are turning to humanitarian aid activities.

Par Alicia Piveteau

  • ANTIL Alain, “La stratégie africaine de la Chine : des succès et des doutes”, Institut Français des Relations Internationales, 2018.
  • CARTER Becky, “A literature review on China’s aid”, Institute of Development Studies, 2017.
  • CHENG Cheng, “Logic behind China’s foreign aid agency”, Carnegie endowment for international Peace, 2019.
  • HIRONO Miwa, “Exploring the links between Chinese foreign policy and humanitarian action. Multiple interests, processes and actors” Humanitarian Policy Group, 2018.
  • Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) :  https://www.focac.org/fra/.

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