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China in Africa: The Real Story

China's Health Aid in Africa: Same Old Problems

Deborah Brautigam

When I wrote my first book on Chinese aid to Africa in 1998, I documented how problems with language and local capacity led to difficulties in technology transfer with material goods -- although skill transfers ("learning by doing") were more successful.

Today Chinese journalist Beibei Yin sent me his newly published article in the Financial Times -- "Chinese donations: Tale of frustration that lies behind health aid to Africa."

Yin shows how little has changed. Chinese medical teams appear to be popular, but Chinese equipment and medicine donations are still coming with instructions only in Chinese. Training is inadequate (five days!), and, consequently, donated goods and machinery sit gathering dust until they expire -- a huge waste for China and for the recipient. This probably doesn't happen at the few places where Chinese doctors practice in revolving medical teams -- but the malaria centers built by the Chinese in an number of African countries do not have any Chinese staff or assistants.

Changing this would require a number of things to change:
  • Chinese exports -- even if donations -- need to come with instruction manuals in English, French, Swalihi and other languages used by educated people in recipient countries. The Ministry of Commerce has been pushing Chinese companies to do this for years, why can't they get the aid donations to follow suit?
  • The Chinese government could finance a Chinese expert (or a small team) who speaks the local language and could operate the machinery together with local technicians, for a year or so. This would allow learning by doing, while working out the kinks while a machine was still under some kind of warrantee.
Yin was not able to study a number of the malaria centers, but this is also an area ripe for student (and other) research. I saw how Ethiopia appears to have good plans for its agro-technical demonstration center, while Tanzania was not at all clear how they would use their "Chinese gift." How have the malaria centers fared across the various countries that have received them? What explains the outcomes.