In Asia, the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, has worked for decades to build successful partnerships with countries to ensure that they expand their self-reliance. It does so by promoting and strengthening democratic systems and values; fostering inclusive, private sector-led economic growth; and improving natural resource management.
Encouraging self-reliance must be key to any development decision, said Gloria Steele, USAID Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Asia:
“The work that we have done has shown that for development to be sustained, a country needs to be self-reliant. A country needs to be able to eventually take over and plan and finance their own development.”
One challenge to economic growth and self-reliance in Asia today is rising authoritarianism, which weakens democratic institutions and fuels non-transparency and corruption. Another related challenge, Ms. Steele declared, is China’s problematic engagement in the region, including its predatory economic activities.
“We enter into a strategic partnership where what is good for the country comes first. . . .China’s approach is almost exactly the opposite. There’s no transparency.”
The secretive nature of China’s dealings means that civil society is kept in the dark about the terms of the loans China is offering, opening the door to corruption. There is no way to keep officials accountable for investing their countries’ resources sustainably.
According to the Center for Global Development, six of the eight most highly debt-distressed countries are in Asia. Part of the difficulty many face is their partnership with China, in particular through the One Belt and One Road Initiative, which includes debt-financed projects in transportation, energy and infrastructure. China offers countries opaque loans for projects of questionable value that also harm local communities, leaving countries on the hook if the projects fail and they cannot pay them back.
Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator Steele describes the consequence:
“When another country owns most of what belongs to you, that significantly affects your sovereignty.”
Through USAID, the United States works to empower its partners, to move them closer to self-reliance and independence. China’s approach leads nations into dependence and debt.
While the United States’ vision for assisting countries in Asia and elsewhere excludes no nation, every nation that seeks to help others should adhere to high standards, including sustainable financing and respect for their partners’ autonomy and sovereignty.