Q&A: Measuring the Effectiveness of Chinese Agricultural Assistance in Africa

China has a long history of involvement in agriculture in Africa. As far back as 1959, China offered food grants to Guinea, and especially since the 2007 introduction of China’s “Agriculture Going Out” initiatives – a set of policies that encouraged Chinese agricultural companies to invest in Africa – Chinese agricultural engagement on the continent has grown significantly.

Today, with so many Chinese-funded agricultural aid and development programs now underway across the continent, effective monitoring and evaluation is critical to determine if these initiatives are actually achieving their stated objectives.

For some perspective on how these programs are evaluated, I spoke with Professor Xu Xiuli, Dean of the College of International Development and Global Agriculture (CIDGA) at China Agricultural University (CAU) in Beijing. Professor Xu is one of China’s foremost experts in overseas agriculture assistance, with more than a decade of experience in international development and China-Africa agricultural issues.

PETER GRINSTED: To what extent do China and its partners in Africa perform evaluation and monitoring programs on agriculture development initiatives in Africa? How is this undertaken? Which metrics and indicators?

PROFESSOR XU: Before answering this question, we should be aware that “development initiatives” in the Chinese context includes aid, investment, trade, and other development-oriented activities. If we simply focus on aid, it’s important to note that different Chinese agriculture programs have different evaluation practices, and there is not yet one centralized system. The newly established China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), previously the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and other related agencies, build the develop an evaluation framework, basically enlightened from both multilateral and bilateral development organizations such as the World Bank, UNDP, and Development Assistance Committee (DAC), but also pay attention to the local experiences and complicated realities.

For example, for Agriculture Technology Demonstration Centers (ATDCs), of which there are now over 20 across the African continent, the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and Ministry of Agriculture manage and implement the evaluation. Official teams and project supervisors are usually sent to the field to ask questions, checking whether the projects match their objectives and also check on financial management. The evaluation criteria used are usually developed with some inspiration from other international development evaluation systems. They have indicators regarding sustainability, relevance, and effectiveness, etc.  The same is true for other categories of Chinese agri-aid in Africa, such as China-FAO South-South and Triangular Cooperation, which has an international independent evaluation system as well as a regular monitoring system.

For locally initiated agri-aid projects launched by entities like universities, research centres or even individual professors, there are different practices, but they are aware of the above criteria to a different degree subject to their knowledge of this established framework. At the China Agriculture University, for example, with programmes like the China-Tanzania Joint Agricultural Research Program, participatory monitoring and evaluation is facilitated. Progress reports, annual working group discussions, on-site coaching, as well as independent mid-term evaluations using indicators of relevance, effectiveness and sustainability are mixed to help to ensure the project progresses.

One feature to highlight is that Chinese evaluation systems place greater priority on mutual learning among key stakeholders, rather than simply accountability to others in the international development system. In fact, I think this is also one of the features of South-South Cooperation, and it encourages learning by doing. Such learnings don’t just happen on the China side but also on the African side. And so, for instance, in the China-Tanzania Joint Agricultural Research Program, during the process, both sides will identify problems during the interaction process, allowing both to get feedback quickly. For instance, we have invited professors from local universities, like the Sokoine University of Agriculture, to help get even more feedback from the grassroots level. One feature of this prioritization is that the evaluation results are used by all key stakeholders involved for reflection and dynamic change.

PETER: What steps could be taken to improve the ability of all stakeholders involved to evaluate the performance of China-Africa agriculture initiatives?

PROFESSOR XU: This is a really important question. Many teams in China and other southern countries are making efforts to explore the topic, i.e., how to evaluate the south-south cooperation considering its diverse modalities as well as varied culture and institutions in different countries. The fact is the existing systems of evaluation developed by DAC donors and even some of the multilateral institutions don’t always fit very well. There are many adaptations or different situations arising from the initial design in real development practices, and the traditional evaluation system seems to struggle to capture the dynamics and guide the project to adapt effectively.

In the design of DAC development project process, a rigid logical framework (logframe) is normally taken as a good instrument for identifying the rational logics among goals, objectives and activities in a certain context. This is something we lecture to students in class, and it works in some ways for helping different stakeholders to clarify the overall goal and different steps to implement it. Very clear and logical. Yet, in the field, with a rigid logframe, it’s hard to guide actions in the complex realities at the grassroot level in developing countries. The reality in the field doesn’t follow the rational logic on paper. When the evaluation result tells the facts in the field and feedback to the decision makers, the established development routines still finds it hard to adjust quickly and easily in many cases.

On the other side, as for South-South Cooperation (SSC) projects, normally there is not such a rigid framework at the early beginning, particularly in practice. The logic of the SSC is different in nature as many projects are initiated and developed based on the demand of partners, rather than on the providers’ design. There is not a very clear blueprint at the early beginning. But rather the partners initiate a certain kind of activity, test it and see what happens, and then mutually adapt during the process. The whole process doesn’t necessarily involve a very specific focus on changes in certain indicators. It does, however, give the space to both sides, allowing them to mutually adjust the process as a project is progressing. I see the process more like a dance with mutual innovation, rather than following an already made recipe for complicated development challenges in the field. This entails a new paradigm on knowledge generation and experiences sharing, i.e., learning from the field, giving spaces to local stakeholders in the practices, and adjusting the design accordingly based on local complicated facts in practice. This may involve a more complicated learning and managing process.

That said, I don’t think SSC gets everything right. But it gives us an opportunity to look at development cooperation projects in a different way. And I think the task now is how to create clear evaluation systems that emphasize mutual learning – I don’t think the international development sector has found an easy answer yet, we need to all keep working on it together with open-minds.

PETER: This is a really interesting point and needs to be worked on. But measuring impact is important. What can be done about this?

PROFESSOR XU: Well, we do try to encourage measuring impact. For instance, together with my colleagues at CAU, we have found very strong evidence of the outputs, outcomes and impacts of Chinese aid for agriculture in Africa. For example, in one case, at an ATDC, the adoption of Chinese planting technology led to an impressive tripling of average annual rice yields per hectare. This is an impressive output. It additionally consolidates impacts on local households’ hope for food security, drivers for market development, as well as pursue gender equality. There are many more examples of the real impact of development projects after accessing internal data from implementing organizations and asking different stakeholders questions to collect the necessary data.

So the examples are there, and we plan to continue evaluating impacts like this going forwards.

Key Takeaways From the Discussion With Professor Xu About Monitoring & Evaluation of Chinese Agricultural Programs in Africa:

    1. The Chinese approach, attaching greater importance to adaptive learning and mutual reference and reflection, is really important to incorporate in evaluation systems and is important for the international development community to reflect on. Tools we particularly like to use at Development Reimagined when we do independent evaluations are “Theories of Change” and “design thinking”, which help to deal with complexity. There may also be means to adjust the sophistication of projects and evaluations as time goes on and projects mature, with stakeholders involved gaining a deeper understanding of each other. But more can be done.
    2. Professor Xu referred to local African involvement in the Chinese evaluations – which is excellent practice and can be built on, especially with more systematic impact evaluations, with the emphasis on transparency and accountability to recipients (rather than other donors). Indeed, having more diverse teams and anonymous and rigorous means of feedback (with, for example, randomised control groups) could really add to the existing approaches.

Agriculture around the world suffers from uncertainty and market failure, in weather, yield, prices, and factor markets. It is excellent that the CAU as well as other Chinese organisations are trying to explore innovative ways to interact with African partners to facilitate sustainable agricultural development. There are no easy answers to making it work, especially in very poor settings. That’s why getting evaluation itself right is so crucial – and learning from different perspectives and experiences in practice and in the field is essential.

Author: Peter Grinsted, Senior Economist, and Jinyu Chen, Research Analyst at Development Reimagined.

This article was originally published on the China-Africa Project website on July 31st 2020

August 2020

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