NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - China's "no strings attached" aid is being abused by African leaders who channel the lion's share of funds to their home areas, U.S.-led researchers found in the first geo-referenced database of Chinese aid to the world's poorest continent.
China is a favoured donor for many African presidents, weary of the conditions attached to Western aid, ranging from combating corruption to respecting gay rights.
In contrast, China's policy of non-interference means it rarely intervenes in domestic issues. This makes it easy for corrupt politicians to use Chinese aid to reward their political supporters, rather than direct it to the areas most in need, researchers said.
"Our research found that the home regions of African presidents receive three to four times more Chinese aid," Roland Hodler, a professor of economics at Switzerland's University of St Gallen, said in a statement.
"This suggests that the Chinese principle of non-interference in domestic affairs allows African presidents to use Chinese aid for patronage politics."
Researchers from German, Australian, Swiss and U.S. universities mapped more than 1,600 Chinese official development aid projects, worth $84 billion, in 50 African countries between 2000 and 2012.
Their paper highlights a "fancy new" Chinese-built school in the remote village of Yoni, hometown of Sierra Leone President Ernest Koroma, and the role of Chinese railway and dam projects in helping President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo win re-election in 2011.
Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Ethiopia were the largest recipients of Chinese aid in Africa, which receives more than half of the superpower's global assistance.
The researchers argue that projects funded for political reasons are less likely to contribute to development than those allocated on the basis of poverty or need.
"We hope that this effort will... facilitate evidence-based discussion and debate among those who want to see foreign aid put to more effective use,” Brad Parks, co-executive director of the AidData research lab at the College of William and Mary in the United States, said in a statement.
Reporting by Katy Migiro, editing by Alisa Tang.