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Zoe Johnson, Clara Brettfeld
July 25, 2022
There is little doubt that progress on global development and the sustainable development goals (SDG) is under threat in a world still reeling from a multi-year pandemic, grappling with an economic downturn, and watching in horror at the outbreak of new wars. Last month, while most media outlets in high-income countries looked to the leaders of seven of the world’s wealthiest countries (G7: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) for details on how we might overcome these global challenges, leaders of some of the world’s most prominent emerging economies had meetings of their own as part of the 14th BRICS Summit.
The commitments made by China at the BRICS Summit, most of which related to its Global Development Initiative (GDI), have received far less attention in Western media than announcements emerging from G7 proceedings but it would be a mistake to overlook them. While China exists on the margins of the “mainstream” North-South development cooperation, China has a long history of supporting other “developing” countries through its South-South cooperation. Especially since China's economic reform and opening-up strategy in the late 1970s, the country has grown into a prominent provider of development finance.
In an effort to bring China’s perspectives and priorities on important development issues more into focus and enhance the global development community’s understanding of China’s GDI, this Donor Tracker Commentary offers five key takeaways from China’s inaugural Global Development Report. While the report remains light on details, it offers important insights into China’s priorities and the mechanisms through which it will set out to achieve progress on the SDGs.
On June 24, 2022, two days before the start of the G7 Summit in Germany, the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) along with 13 non-BRICS countries, gathered virtually for the High-Level Dialogue on Global Development as part of the 14th BRICS Summit. The Summit was hosted by China, and the High-Level Dialogue was Chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who called on his fellow leaders to seize the current moment, with its many compounding crises, as an opportunity to accelerate progress toward the SDGs.
Although China has a long history of development cooperation, under the leadership of President Xi, the country has taken an even more active and collaborative role in global development on the international stage. President Xi has elevated global development cooperation in China, including establishing a dedicated development institution — the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) — in 2018, and more recently launching the GDI. The GDI was announced by the Chinese President in September of 2021 as a “fast track” to promote the SDGs despite “severe shocks” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
China made most of its commitments at the High-Level Dialogue at the BRICS Summit within the framework of the GDI. The Chair’s Statement of the event commits to 32 deliverables to implement the GDI. President Xi pledged to issue a Global Development Report to contribute a Chinese perspective on the SDGs and trends in global development. The report was also intended to offer more clarity on the GDI, which has previously been criticized for being more of a broad vision than a concrete plan. China’s first Global Development Report was published on July 20, 2022 — just ahead of the Summit — by China’s Center for International Knowledge on Development (CIKD). CIKD is a think tank founded by the Chinese government in August of 2017 to produce and share knowledge on global development theory and practice in China and around the world.
The recently published Global Development Report was written for an international audience, signaling China’s willingness to increase dialogues with different stakeholders on global development. The report is comprised of four chapters which, 1) analyze the progress and challenges in implementing the 2030 Agenda, 2) set the stage, describing the current state of global affairs and global development, 3) explain the core concepts, fundamental principles, pathways, and existing actions and results of the GDI, and 4) offer policy recommendations for “building a global community of development”. While the report provides useful context on China’s priorities and approaches and might offer some hope around China’s commitments to increase its openness and transparency on its development cooperation, it falls short of laying out concrete funding figures or timelines.
The GDI is guided by seven core principles: development-first principle, a people-centered approach, inclusive benefits, innovation-driven development, harmony with nature, action-oriented tactics, and synergy with existing mechanisms.
The Global Development Report explains that “the GDI offers Chinese solutions to the questions of our times”. As outlined in the previously published Donor Tracker ‘Insight’ on Chinese Development Finance, China frames its global development cooperation as “categorically different than that of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) donors”. China aims to set itself apart via its firm grounding in Chinese cultural principles, including the ideal of universal harmony. China’s 2021 White Paper on global development cooperation describes universal harmony as a deep-rooted belief in Chinese culture, which when applied to global development, means nurturing cooperative and respectful relationships with other countries and working toward a better, shared future for the entire global community. According to the Global Development Report, the GDI also upholds this principle, advocating for respect and solidarity between countries. This sentiment is reflected in its principles of inclusive benefits and harmony with nature. Despite these ideals being framed as uniquely Chinese, they are incontrovertible enough to be seen in most DAC donors’ development rhetoric as well.
Perhaps more uniquely Chinese is the “development first principle”, which reflects China’s belief that before achieving a certain level of development, low- and middle-income countries are under no obligation to control their emissions. (This is similar, though perhaps more clear-cut than the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities or CBDR. See more on this below.) The “development first principle” is in line with China’s domestic approach to development, which it uses as a model for its support for other “developing” countries. China has been highly successful in growing its economy and lifting its population out of poverty; however, these achievements have come at the cost of increased emissions. (In 2020 China accounted for more than 30% of global CO2 emissions, up from less than 8% in 1980). The Global Development Report suggests that China’s development successes prove that “only by focusing on development can a nation achieve prosperity and strength, and its people live a happy life”. Despite the “development first principle”, the report signals China’s recognition that climate change poses a threat to global development and suggests that through the GDI, China will work to support its partners in adapting to climate change and adopting green and low-carbon solutions for development as much as possible (see more on this below).
The GDI is focused on eight priority areas: poverty reduction, food security, pandemic response and vaccines, development finance, green and sustainable development, industrialization, digital economy, and digital connectivity.
The GDI priorities, as outlined in the Global Development Report, are somewhat unsurprising given the GDI’s purpose as a response to current crises. Many of the eight priority areas highlighted are also high on the G7 agenda, and some of the policy responses proposed in the Global Development Report are similar to those initiated by the G7. For example, the Global Development Report suggests a need to deepen international collaboration on food security and calls on multilateral development banks (MDBs) to establish funding mechanisms that would allow for a faster and more efficient disbursement of funds for food security-related initiatives. Meanwhile, the G7 launched a Global Alliance on Food Security, which was co-initiated by German Development Minister Svenja Schulze and World Bank President David Malpass to “deliver a swift, effective and sustainable joint response to the food crisis”. However, while the G7 very emphatically links the current food crisis and the need for the Alliance to “Russia’s war of aggression”, the Global Development Report is much more subtle in its framing of this connection. This is true of the report overall, which only mentions what it refers to as the “Russia-Ukraine conflict” twice.
Digital transformation and sustainability are important cross-cutting priorities of the GDI. Digital transformation and a green transition are identified in the Global Development Report as landmark changes of our time, which the report argues, should be harnessed as tools for poverty reduction and economic growth. Some elements of digital transformation and a green transition are mentioned in the sections of the report explaining the GDI’s approach to seven out of the eight priority areas it covers (all except development finance).
As well as being its own priority area as part of the GDI, digital transformation — including bridging the digital divide, improving digital infrastructure, and growing the digital economy — is framed as means of promoting equality across various diverse dimensions of development. The Global Development Report suggests improving the capacity of global health governance using big data, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things, and block-chains. It hails digital technology as a great equalizer, a tool that can be used to help students in remote areas access equal and quality education, allow micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) in less developed areas reach a broader market, and enhance the resilience and profits of farmers in poor regions. Although the report suggests that China is committed to driving a “new round of economic globalization” through digital transformation, it also acknowledges that digital technology does not come without challenges. It mentions barriers to digital inclusion such as the cost of internet and devices, the threat that technology such as AI and industrial robotics could pose to the competitiveness of low-and middle-income countries in global industrial supply chains, the potential labor market implications of automation, and data security.
Although according to its “development first approach”, economic growth and poverty reduction should be the priority, the Global Development Report also outlines China’s commitment to fostering “harmony between people and nature” through green, low-carbon development, especially when there are synergies between environmental and development goals. It suggests the need for innovative approaches to using a green transition for poverty reduction. It also oulines the GDI’s support for green agriculture and research and development (R&D) for new low-carbon technologies. Unlike China’s 2021 White Paper on international development, the report makes direct mention of the Paris Agreement, in particular, the GDI’s commitment to upholding the principle CBDR (which is, of course, related to the “development first principle described above). China has long been a proponent of CBDR, which Chinese officials have argued is important for fostering global solidarity on climate change. The principle of CBDR was an important component of the ‘U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s’, released in November of 2021. Some commentators have suggested the US’ and China’s agreement on the principle was essential to facilitating cooperation on climate change between these two often competitive world powers.
China is putting a strong emphasis on multilateralism, cooperation, and consensus through the GDI. China signaled its “firm support” of multilateralism and its intention to increase financial contributions to international organizations in its 2021 White Paper; the Global Development Report continues this trend. It suggests that the GDI upholds “true multilateralism” and calls for “enhanced cooperation with UN development agencies”. The policy recommendations offered in the last chapter of the report echo many similar calls to action made by international organizations, such as addressing the vaccine gap through multilateralism or the need to strengthen the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) role in health governance. This suggests that China’s approaches to many of the issues the GDI sets out to tackle are aligned with international practices.
The GDI also calls for stronger bilateral cooperation between “North and South”, striking a conciliatory tone regarding tensions or competition that exist between China and OECD donors. In line with its core principle of “synergy with existing mechanisms”, the GDI “is intended neither to replace existing international development agenda nor to dilute the 2030 Agenda or cherry-pick the SDGs.” Much like the 2021 White Paper, it frames the GDI (and Chinese development cooperation overall) as a means of filling the gap left by “traditional” donors. It points to OECD donors’ lack of progress on climate change and environmental issues in addition to their role in worsening poverty as a result of the inflation caused by their fiscal responses to COVID-19 as areas that might need filling.
The relation between the GDI and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) remains unclear. Although China’s development cooperation has been strongly linked to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the BRI is not mentioned in the Global Development Report. This leaves the relation between the BRI and GDI up for speculation. It seems likely that the two initiatives are complementary; while the BRI mainly focuses on large-scale trade, investment, and infrastructure projects, the GDI’s focus will probably favor smaller-scale public investments primarily focused on the health and welfare of people in partner countries. In this sense, initiatives through the GDI will likely be more aligned with the types of projects on which OECD donors spend their ODA. It will be interesting to watch how these two initiatives continue to grow and evolve in the years ahead.
The commitments made by China at the BRICS dialogue and the Global Development Report that backs them up suggest that China’s emphasis on international development cooperation continues to increase under President Xi’s leadership. It, therefore, remains important for the rest of the global development community to understand China’s perspectives and priorities on development and explore opportunities to work together toward shared goals. China remains firmly committed to building global partnerships in the pursuit of sustainable development, meaning that there will likely be even more opportunities for OECD donors and multilaterals to collaborate in the years ahead.
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