The Chinese government publishes less data about its overseas aid spending than western donors, but more than is commonly thought, according to a new report from the campaign group, Publish What You Fund and the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch university.

Transparency of Chinese Aid, launched today with a debate at Chatham House in London, highlights the shortcomings of Chinese aid information disclosure. These include the tendency to report aggregate levels rather than country-specific data, the absence of a central monitoring agency, and the lack of impact assessments.

However, the authors conclude that, contrary to general perception, provision of information is evolving fast in China and there is a willingness among the authorities to work with international partners on aid transparency, in particular looking at the technical details involved.

“Aid transparency is essential to enhance overall aid effectiveness and this year is key with the High Level Forum in Korea providing an opportunity to review donors’ progress,” said Karin Christiansen, Director of Publish What You Fund. “As emerging donors like China start to play a more central role in aid provision, it’s important to engage them in a dialogue about transparency and encourage them to increase the information available.”

The report’s purpose is not to provide estimates of the overall aid volumes given by China (which are not systematically reported) but it reproduces figures from a recent Chinese government white paper, China’s Foreign Aid, showing that 45% of all Chinese aid in 2009 went to Africa, 32% to Asia, and 13% to Latin America and the Caribbean. Of this, two fifths was spent on projects conceptualised, planned, financed and delivered by Chinese actors.

The Chinese definition of foreign assistance and aid are different from that used by Western countries, which makes comparison difficult. The Chinese count military spending as aid, but unlike traditional donors, do not include debt relief or the cost of educating foreign students.

According to the recent Chinese government white paper, 11% of their aid goes to upper-middle income or high-income countries and around a third is given to countries with the same or higher income per capita than China. One of the reasons why more country-specific aid information is not published could be to avoid the tricky questions about why China is giving aid to middle-income countries when it still has high levels of domestic poverty.

Others possible reasons for the non-publication of data include defensiveness towards the still-more substantial Western aid donors; irritation with the international community demanding adherence to their standards; desire to avoid competition between recipient countries; and lack of capacity to deal with the statistics. An additional challenge is the number of different ministries and state agencies involved in disbursement of aid.

“Finding information on Chinese aid is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. This is of course the case with other donors but the missing pieces are larger and less comparable in China,” said Sven Grimm, Director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, and the paper’s main author. “What this report shows is a mixed picture: some progress but still a long way to go before Chinese aid could be considered truly transparent.”

The report makes a number of recommendations for how China could make progress on aid transparency:

· Initial steps: Assess, test and develop a publication schedule for aid information that Chinese agencies already hold in line with the emerging best practice standard set out in the International Aid Transparency Initiative.

· More substantial steps: Publish existing information already held by these agencies, in line with best practice, and facilitate the dissemination and use of this information, particularly by recipient country governments in the first instance.

· More ambitious steps: Build systems to collect data that is not currently held and invest in the accessibility and use of that information in China itself.

The report also notes the responsibility of aid recipients to articulate the demand for increased donor transparency, and provide compatible information about their own budgets.

Attempts by the international community to engage Chinese actors are likely to be best framed in terms of the existing conversations about “South-South Cooperation”, according to the paper’s authors, rather than via the concept of aid-transparency.

Read Transparency of Chinese Aid.