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How INGOs mediate China’s “going out” strategy

How INGOs mediate China’s “going out” strategy

China has become a major player in global development. Its development finance now rivals World Bank lending in scale, and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has grown to embrace 140 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. New multilateral finance and trade institutions have been created, building an “alternative architecture to the postwar Western order.”

China’s accelerating global engagement has major geostrategic implications, but is not well understood by a wary West, or by countries receiving Chinese aid and investment. Diplomatic and policy responses to Chinese projects and the BRI therefore tend to lack coherence or miss the mark. An exclusionary focus on the powerful Chinese developmental state obscures the significant role of other actors, including Chinese state-owned enterprises, private firms, and NGOs. Perhaps surprisingly, some of these actors, such as International NGOs (INGOs), turn out to be situated within the West itself.

Evidence shows that Chinese actors are inexperienced in cross-border development work and find it challenging to navigate new political and regulatory environments. Their attempts to engage with local communities do not always go smoothly, counteracting China’s efforts to expand its soft power. By contrast, INGOs, though often headquartered in the West, are experienced in working in diverse countries on a range of development issues. They possess the global development experience and local contacts that Chinese actors lack. INGOs have been stepping in to mediate China’s “going out” strategy.

INGOs as intermediaries 

Our recent article in International Affairs shows that INGOs play several intermediary roles in China’s global engagement. They bridge gaps in resources and expertise. In Chinese overseas health initiatives, for example, different Chinese bodies may build hospitals, provide medical equipment and drugs, and train medical personnel in various communities. These scattershot projects can be functionally siloed, leading to practical difficulties in implementation. INGOs have worked with Chinese aid agencies to integrate these siloed areas by bridging different resources from key stakeholders. They have also directly provided funding and technical assistance to initiate activities in neglected issue areas.

INGOs have helped Chinese actors reach out to local communities in host countries that are recipients of Chinese aid projects, conduct participatory appraisals, institute environmental grievance mechanisms, and bring community voices to the attention of Chinese private and government stakeholders. INGOs have also mobilized their networks to help Chinese actors broker trusted partnerships abroad. For example, a Chinese GONGO doing specialized surgeries in Southeast Asia chose to work with an organization directly under the military rather than with local hospitals, thereby distancing itself from local communities and impeding trust-building. INGOs function as relationship brokers, connecting Chinese projects to trusted local NGOs or community leaders.

Through their China offices, INGOs train Chinese actors to “go out.” They participate in China’s global engagement by training Chinese officials, state-owned enterprises, and NGOs in “international standards and norms.” They help Chinese government departments to describe their work in a language that global actors can understand. They also establish platforms for synthesizing best practices for going out, holding workshops and conferences, and creating training manuals. In sharing their own experiences and modeling innovations in their development work, INGOs influence Chinese outbound aid and investment.

Navigating complexity in China’s “going out” strategy

As INGOs mediate China’s globalizing efforts, they must navigate a shifting complexity in seeking to promote China’s responsible global engagement. INGOs struggle to balance domestic priorities with the push to look overseas in response to changing political opportunity structures. On the one hand, they recognize the importance of China’s global engagement and the need to engage with it. At the same time, they feel they are spreading their resources and strategy thin and want to focus their resources within China.

INGOs recognize that an effective strategy to responsible engagement requires a careful avoidance of two extremes—”uncritically endorsing China’s role” versus “demonizing China and largely exculpating the West.” China often frames its outbound aid and investment as South-South Cooperation, emphasizing the values of solidarity and non-interference. It is therefore seen by some Southern actors as a welcome alternative to the post-colonial relations of a Western order. As Northern actors, INGOs need to balance political pressures from their Western headquarters with narratives prevalent in China and many of the Southern countries in which they operate.

INGOs must also balance the extent to which they facilitate China’s outbound efforts or move China toward greater compliance with international standards. Nevertheless, they are uniquely positioned to make significant contributions to China’s global strategy. Those concerned with China’s soft power projection and global influence would therefore do well to incorporate Western actors, such as INGOs, into their analysis.

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