Defying stereotypes in China

A few days ago I arrived in Beijing to begin a new job as deputy country director for UNDP China. In this job, I’ll be heading a team that advises the Chinese government and other Chinese counterparts such as businesses how to cooperate effectively with other countries and further develop their international positions on issues such as climate change and what comes after the Millennium Development Goals.

It’s my first week so I’m obviously still learning a lot about what my job will entail, but one thing is crystal clear… It will involve defying stereotypes.

The mere mention of China tends to invoke a lot of stereotypes. For example, typical blogs by people who visit China for the first time, from America to Jamaica – are often about how different Chinese food and culture is. The stereotype of Kenyans coming to China – such as myself – is that we’re coming to do business. And the stereotype of people coming to China who have worked in OECD aid agencies – again like myself – is that we are here to tell Chinese counterparts how to deliver aid “properly”.

But China is a country that defies stereotypes. For example, in July this year, the Chinese government released its second ever White Paper on Foreign Aid. This extended China’s first Paper (published in April 2011) by providing detailed information about Chinese assistance to poorer countries over the three years from 2010 to 2012. Since the publication of the White Paper, my new team here at UNDP has been reviewing it, and their analysis can be found here.

One of the key messages that comes through in my team’s analysis is that while the stereotypical understanding of Chinese aid is big infrastructure projects built by Chinese companies, China has actually diversified the kinds of projects it is undertaking to support development. China has also broadened its partnerships – especially regional organizations such as the African Development Bank – and these diverse programmes are delivering real impact – from reducing the incidence of malaria to creating jobs. China is defying stereotypes to save lives in poorer countries.

Similarly, my team also point out that China’s practical approach to supporting development often differs from stereotypical approaches used by OECD aid agencies, even if the underlying principles are very similar. For example, China mentions in the White Paper how reducing trade tariffs for imports by poorer countries to China has contributed to their development. My fellow Kenyans that do business with China would certainly share this view, and although OECD country governments would too, very few OECD aid agencies actively report on changes in trade policy as means of delivering development (NB: In 2014 the UK was an exception – see Chapter 5 of the Department For International Development’s Annual Report here).

This defiance of stereotypes is why I’m excited about the next few years in this job. I’ll be advising my Chinese counterparts, but I’ll also be learning a lot and helping to defy stereotypes all over the world by providing better information and more understanding. I’ll certainly try to avoid those stereotypical blogs about food and culture!

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