China’s foreign aid for biodiversity: why issue-based aid calls for institutionalized inter-agency cooperation

Editor’s Note: As a new phase of UN negotiations kicked off in Kunming on Oct 11 that will decide how the world conserves its forests, grassland and oceans in the next decade, China’s actions on biodiversity is put under international spotlight. While the country has put up quite an effort in conserving biodiversity domestically in recent years (under the framework of building an “ecological civilization”), its footprint overseas, through the massive build-up of infrastructure in the developing world, has been a subject of controversy. The announcement of a RMB 1.5 billion biodiversity fund for developing countries in Kunming makes people wonder how China deals with that footprint going forward.

Understanding China’s potential to reshape its environmental impact overseas requires an understanding of its toolbox. And Chinese foreign aid has increasingly been leaned upon as an instrument to deliver “public good” internationally. The 2018 creation of a new foreign aid agency and the publishing of a White Paper this year indicate China’s ambition in this field. But can Chinese foreign aid live up to that expectation from the Party Leadership? In a latest article, researcher Sun Tianshu argues that inter-agency coordination needs to be strengthened quite a bit for the instrument to play its role of supporting China’s top-level diplomacy, using biodiversity-related aid as a case in point. Panda Paw Dragon Claw got permission to translate and publish the article in English.

China has just held Phase 1 of the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Among the initial pledges to emerge from the Phase 1 meetings was a USD 232 million fund for biodiversity conservation in developing countries. With momentum behind taking more action on biodiversity, it is worth looking at how China’s foreign aid on biodiversity works. This important issue area provides a window into analyzing the complex “ecosystem” of Chinese foreign aid actors involved and demonstrates the pressing need to establish dynamic inter-agency cooperation. 

In our latest analysis, we found that although a large number of agencies and institutions participated in biodiversity-related foreign aid, much of the work lacks an overarching direction from top-level thinking on international development. The reality of biodiversity foreign aid highlights the urgency of institutionalizing inter-agency coordination through the new Measures on the Management of Foreign Aid (“Measures”), released in August this year.

Phase I of the CBD COP15 kicked off on Oct 11 in Kunming, the capital city of China’s Yunnan province. Image: Xinhua

Coordinating China’s foreign aid

China’s new Measures, published on Aug 31, marks a milestone in foreign aid reforms since the establishment of China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) in 2018. The Measures designates CIDCA as the overall coordinator and strategic planner of Chinese foreign aid, and clarifies the mechanisms through which it interacts with foreign aid implementor departments such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM). Specifically, it assigns an overarching coordination role for CIDCA in “promoting reforms in foreign aid methods,” “setting up mechanisms for foreign aid coordination,” and “creating mid-long term foreign aid plans.” It should fulfil its leading role in cooperation with the implementing agencies, whose roles include advising CIDCA on project initiation and planning, besides on-the-ground implementation of Chinese foreign aid projects.

In the text of the Measures, the word “jointly” (会同) appears more than a dozen times, far more than in previous versions (2014 and 2018), highlighting the institutionalization of inter-agency cooperation in the new era of Chinese foreign aid. The emphasis on inter-agency cooperation should be understood in the following context:

  • China’s high-level diplomacy needs to be backed up by its foreign aid. Chinese foreign aid has a multitude of participants involved. Alongside the traditional leading foreign aid agency, MOFCOM, other agencies including MoFA, Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) and Ministry of Health (MOH) also manage part of the foreign aid budget, including special funds for South-South Cooperation and for contributions to multilateral institutions. These agencies can initiate foreign aid projects at their own discretion. In addition, some Chinese enterprises and NGOs also carry out aid projects overseas. This reality of fragmentation has led to difficulties in grasping the complete picture of Chinese foreign aid and a gap in meeting the needs of high-level diplomacy. A more coordinated approach to project initiation and data collection, based on institutionalized inter-agency cooperation, is urgently required.
  • China’s deeper involvement in global governance requires its foreign aid program to respond to key global issues in international development. In this regard, CIDCA needs to better its approach to “issue topic planning” with support from issue-expert agencies. The new concept of “international development cooperation” is an umbrella concept that covers poverty alleviation, agriculture, public health, environmental protection and many other issue areas. Currently, the initiation of Chinese foreign aid projects is carried out by CIDCA’s region-specific departments and bureaus. If a recipient country’s needs touch on specific developmental issues, then CIDCA would seek  inputs from issue-expert agencies. Elevating and institutionalizing that inter-agency cooperation can harness the tremendous issue-expertise of specialized agencies accumulated over the years, helping Chinese foreign aid to better respond to the concerns of the international community and demonstrate Chinese leadership and its developmental achievements.
  • The existing inter-agency and central-provincial coordination mechanisms need to be consolidated. In 2008, MOFCOM set up a cross-agency communication mechanism for foreign aid jointly with MoFA, the Ministry of Finance and other agencies. In 2011, that mechanism was elevated into a “coordination” mechanism, with 33 participating institutions. As the leading central government agency for foreign aid then, MOFCOM also set up a cooperation mechanism with provincial level commerce departments. But based on publicly available information, it is not clear whether the mechanisms were effectively implemented. After the establishment of CIDCA, high level policies need to be created to clarify if the new agency has the power and authority to mobilize and coordinate other agencies for key issues concerning foreign aid.

Biodiversity: a case of issue-based foreign aid

Using archival materials, interviews and publicly available information online, our analysis uncovered over 70 foreign aid projects with biodiversity as a focus, carried out by Chinese actors between 2006 and 2020. In addition, there were 3 biodiversity-related donations to multilateral institutions from China. The following diagram maps the actors and funds:

The mapping shows that at least 7 government agencies at ministry or province levels have been involved in foreign aid in the biodiversity issue area. Their roles can be divided as such:

CIDCA (and MOFCOM before 2018) provides general foreign aid funds and South-South Cooperation funds to support projects including training sessions for developing country officials on wildlife protection and international treaty implementation. It also supported the Sino-Africa Joint Search Center hosted by Kenya, and material donations to Kenya and Namibia for wildlife protection.

“Issue expert” agencies such as MEE and National Forestry and Grassland Administration (NFGA) advise foreign aid project initiation and implementation. Their subordinate bodies such as the Forestry Science Institute and Forestry Management Personnel Training Institute have implemented foreign aid projects, including international training sessions for remote sensing monitoring of forest resources and technology assistance to Mongolia for Gobi bear protection.

MoFA has supported projects through the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Special Fund, including a cross-border elephant population survey and monitoring, community-based forestry for poverty alleviation and training sessions on the establishment of cross-border protection areas.

MoST has supported technology assistance projects to Brazil on the utilization of bamboo, held training sessions on oil crop development and a joint study on pest prevention for coconut trees with the Maldives, all under its Special Fund for Strategic International Science and Technology Innovation Cooperation.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has set up scholarships to support developing country doctoral students and Belt and Road country master’s students. It has shouldered the responsibilities of running the Sino-Africa Joint Research Center and has also established 10 other overseas research centers, some of which undertake work in biodiversity and species conservation.

Some provincial governments, such as Yunnan and Ningxia, have financed their own cross-border wildlife conservation work besides implementing foreign aid projects commissioned by the central government. Some of them have also set up international technological cooperation centers facing developing countries. For example, Yunnan province has supported the Yunnan-Namtha (Lao PDR) Environmental Protection Technology Assistance and Exchange project.

In addition, through the MEE and NFGA, China has made core donations and provided restrictive funding to the UNEP, Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission and the International Bamboo and Rattan Organization (INBAR) for biodiversity-related work.

It should be pointed out that with the exception of CIDCA (MOFCOM)’s foreign aid funds and South South Cooperation funds, all the other forms of funding above are not strictly speaking “foreign aid”. Nevertheless, they are all publicly financed concessional funds (all grants) provided by central and provincial governments to developing country recipients, and therefore meet the definition of “Official Development Assistance” (ODA).

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The Lancang-MeKong Cooperation platform is where some of China’s foreign aid on biodiversity is implemented. Photo by Dick Hoskins on

The potential for better inter-agency coordination

Dynamic collaboration between the leading central agency on foreign aid, CIDCA, and its implementing partners can and should respond to China’s key diplomatic priorities and international developmental needs, answering the Party’s expectations for improved Chinese foreign aid in its 2018 ministerial reshuffle. Together with the foreign affairs apparatus, CIDCA can leverage biodiversity foreign aid to serve the needs of China’s high-level diplomacy in the following areas:

Head of State diplomacy – Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have both made pledges on biodiversity. At the 2018 FOCAC Summit in Beijing, Xi announced a goal to implement 50 ecological and environment aid projects in Africa under the Sino-Africa Cooperation Green Development Action Plan. During Premier Li Keqiang’s 2014 visit to the African Union, he committed USD 10 million in grants for African wildlife protection. In recent years, President Xi has made multiple statements and pledges on biodiversity at high-level forums including the Leaders’ Summit for Climate, China-France-Germany Leaders Summit and the UN Summit on Biodiversity. Most recently, he committed CNY 1.5 billion (USD 232 billion) to protecting biodiversity in developing countries at the Convention on Biodiversity talks in Kunming last week. These pledges and commitments need to be transformed into concrete action through foreign aid, which is where CIDCA’s coordinating role comes in.

Multilateral Diplomacy – China is among the earliest signatory nations of the CBD and was once the largest recipient of biodiversity-related foreign aid, a major beneficiary of multilateral environmental processes. Now it is a strong supporter of those processes. The CBD COP15 is a high-level platform to demonstrate Chinese leadership and influence. Many parties have high expectations on Chinese announcements, pledges and proposals, especially how China plans to support other developing countries in conserving their environment. Its foreign aid and other funding commitments are therefore given close attention.

Neighboring Diplomacy – Of the 76 projects reviewed in this analysis, 36 are targeted at Asian countries, 27 are in China’s Southeast Asian and South Asian neighbors. China shares borders and cultural heritage with these neighbors. Providing biodiversity aid to them not only conserves species and their habitats, but also supports the livelihood, culture and faith of local people. Moreover, the issue of biodiversity is intertwined with sensitive issues such as bio-safety, cross-border rivers and movements of wild animals, wherein inter-agency information sharing and collaboration are particularly needed.

Contrary to popular perceptions that biodiversity conservation focuses on protecting charismatic species such as tigers, leopards and elephants, the CBD’s draft Global Biodiversity Framework for the next decade contains 21 action targets covering everything from conserving 30% of the world’s land and ocean to reducing human-animal conflict and the fair sharing of benefits from genetic resources. CIDCA needs the inputs from issue expert agencies to handle projects in this area.

CIDCA may also need its peer agencies to inform it of the areas in which the sharing of Chinese experience via foreign aid may be valuable. Through interviews with key experts in this field, our analysis finds that China’s efforts in drawing up ecological redlines, poverty alleviation through conservation, ecological rehabilitation and anti-desertification have accumulated world-recognized experience and are technologies worth including in foreign aid projects.

President Xi Jinping speaking at the FOCAC Summit Beijing, September 4 2018. Image: Paul Kagame

Harnessing provincial diplomacy

China’s border region provinces are natural portals through which developmental assistance “goes out”. They play key roles in following developments in neighboring countries, understanding their needs and providing inputs to the design of aid projects. Border provinces’ engagement with biodiversity-related aid projects in their neighboring countries can supplement central-level foreign aid in important ways.

Cross-border conservation and technological cooperation projects carried out by Yunnan and Ningxia province with funding supplied locally offer new ways to implement foreign aid. The model now covers four modes of interaction:

  • A provincial government serves as an implementing party to a central-level foreign aid projects, and commissions experienced local entities to carry out the projects
  • A provincial government applies for special funding to carry out South-South Cooperation projects. Such funding sources include MoFA’s Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Special Fund and the Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission.
  • A provincial government uses funds from its own coffer to support foreign aid and South-South Cooperation. For example, the Yunnan provincial department of commerce financed the “China-Laos cross-border elephant protection and ecological village demonstration project”, which carried out activities such as capacity building, equipment donation and installation.
  • A provincial government facilitates biodiversity-related aid projects carried out by other parties. For example, Yunnan province hosts CAS’s Southeast Asia Biodiversity Research Center in Xishuangbanna, helping it to become a key center of international research in the region.

Harnessing academia-led diplomacy

One feature of biodiversity conservation is its close interaction with scientific research. As such, when conducting foreign aid in this field, the leading agency should work closely with science departments to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of aid work. Currently, two types of collaborations exist between the foreign aid agency and science departments and institutions:

  • Science-focused institutions serving as the implementers of foreign aid projects. In 2016, MOFCOM commissioned the Forestry Science Institute to conduct feasibility studies and implement the Mongolian Gobi bear protection project as part of Chinese foreign aid to the country.
  • Science institutions playing the role of operator and supporter for a foreign aid entity. In 2016, when the Sino-Africa Joint Research Center, as part of Chinese foreign aid to Kenya, was handed over to the recipient country the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Wuhan Botanic Garden) provided operational support to the Center. It established five branch centers, including for African Biodiversity and Utilization and African Ecology and Environmental Studies, making the Joint Research Center a key research base for biodiversity on the continent.
CAS helps operate the Sino-Africa Joint Research Center in Nairobi, Kenya. Image: MoFA

A case for better inter-agency coordination

Even though biodiversity-related aid is currently a niche area in Chinese foreign aid, making up a small portion in the overall portfolio, it nevertheless is representative of the multi-party, multi-agency nature of Chinese aid. In fact, this is the norm of Chinese foreign aid in most issue areas. If organized with strategic guidance, the diverse agencies and stakeholders may create a prospering field, otherwise, misalignment and waste ensue. Using the new Measures to institutionalize how CIDCA should interact with multiple supporting agencies and institutions is therefore highly desirable.

It is especially noteworthy that Chinese foreign aid is now moving towards “international development cooperation,” elaborated on in a White Paper earlier this year as contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and responding to global humanitarian challenges. The White Paper signals how, as China participates ever more deeply into global governance, it intends to harness its foreign aid tools to respond better to key global issues, recipient country needs and the calls for a shared and participatory approach.

In this period of transformation, Chinese foreign aid should learn to go beyond the traditional donor-recipient relations and embrace the broader, complex and rapidly changing world facing the myriad of emerging issues, from climate change to the digital economy, from women’s empowerment to bio-safety. The foreign aid that China offers should embody its rich experience and advanced solutions in such issues (renewable energy, nature-based solutions, internet connectivity, etc.) to demonstrate the vitality of the Chinese economy and improve its reception in other developing countries.

A lot of the above issues are cross-cutting and go way beyond the remit of one government agency or the knowledge base of its officials. This reality calls for synergy to bring together the expertise and experience of multiple departments and stakeholders to increase the professionalism, responsiveness and targetedness of Chinese foreign aid. Establishing a streamlined and dynamic inter-agency cooperation mechanism is the foundation on which Chinese foreign aid can make that transition, and a test of the effectiveness of China’s foreign aid reform.

Sun Tianshu is assistant researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation (CAITEC), affiliated with MOFCOM.

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