From across the globe interview – a conversation with Khalid Malik on China’s unprecedented capacities to tackle poverty, development partnerships and the financial crisis, 14 April 2009
Question: What does China have to offer in terms of capacity strengths, assets or lessons that other countries could draw on or learn from?
Khalid Malik: Well, China represents 1.3 billion people and in that sense really is an example, or an opportunity for people to know better what China has done. China has lifted 500 million people out of poverty in the last two and a half decades. That is by far the most historic progression of the human condition ever in the history of mankind. And what was quite interesting for me was that, how China did it, in what way their policies succeeded is not well known globally. And that’s the reason that a few years ago, we helped set up an international poverty reduction centre in Beijing which is very much focused on the South-South dimensions and tries to engage developing countries globally with Chinese poverty reduction experiences. So, each country has to take its own view on how to move forward but there are also wonderful examples as to how countries have taken up an issue and tell something and make some progress on it. And maybe China can be an opportunity to dig a little deeper on that.
The second dimension of this whole experience is that China is going global in a very massive way quickly. Five years ago, when I went to China I could see already that their companies were beginning to go overseas. But I was quite impressed by companies that were not going overseas to one or two countries, but they were going overseas and having offices and operations in 60, 70, 80 countries. They were becoming global players in that sense. And now you see the more recent step forward of that aspect which is that we have China as a government also going global in terms of partnerships with neighbouring countries, and also Africa and Latin America – and the recent meeting in London was also an indication of China beginning to take a sense of global responsibilities. So, there’s a lot of interesting stuff out there for others if they’re interested in getting involved.
Q: China is emerging as a powerful donor and investor in Africa and other places, what does this mean for the United Nations?
Khalid Malik: The traditional ideas of recipient and donors never really applied but it was somehow easy to think in those terms. I would have put the accent much more on partnerships. And in that context China has been doing this for the last 50, 60 years – it’s not a recent phenomenon. What is different now is that in the last four or five years, China has picked up the pace in terms of visibility, in terms of new resources. In the case of Africa for instance, infrastructure investments had virtually disappeared. But China has put a lot of “oomph” behind that and initially of course, people were very worried – are they operating under some agreed framework or not – but in the end, we have to see what the recipients are saying. And two years ago, when the recipients came all in Beijing – there were 44 heads of state who came to that summit meeting. It was clear that the China Africa relationship is a very robust one, it’s continued to grow. And to an extent, the UN system can be helpful in facilitating that and making it an increasingly win-win partnership on both sides – that is our role fundamentally.
Q: What is the role of UNDP in a country like China that has such substantial human and financial capital?
Khalid Malik: Five years ago, when I got there, there was a question asked of me: What is the UN – not just UNDP – doing in a country like China, which is a vastly emerging superpower, with resources and capacities? And curiously, the work we have done over the last five years has been trying to respond to that question. Fundamentally, you realize that actually, your role becomes even important as countries move up the scale.
It’s been very much along three lines in China: one is on global norms and standards. If we can work and help China become a full and active, concerned, global citizen, then the modest investments we have made is magnified dramatically, not just for China, but globally as well. Secondly, this question of best practices and global experience sharing – to the extent that we do it well or not, we can debate this, but it is very much a demand, an interest as to how other countries have done certain things. And that is also something we have been investing a lot in China. And the third part has been very much maybe more specifically China’s own conditions. They do not believe in rolling out global policies in one go. They do a lot of piloting and experimentation. And as they go from one threshold of reforms to the next one, this is where UNDP, and the UN have been very useful because increasingly, they use us to test out sensitive ideas – land reform for farmers (there’s only 300 million of them so it’s a big issue) growth of civil society in China, we have been asked to help them in doing that. So, to try out those methodologies and approaches in different parts of China. And once that is done, then China will, as it were, take pause and bring it all together before it rolls out the legal change or policy change which is needed as a result of that. So, in a sense, it showed very much the high potential value of the UN system if we do it right.
Q: From your experience, will countries have to develop new capacities to deal with the financial crisis? And what is the role of UNDP?
Khalid Malik: We are currently involved in doing something like that in China. We have been trying to help them look at the issues that are emerging which need very operational attention now. One issue that has been emerging is trade finance, which is drying up globally. China is in an unusual situation. It has large reserves, low inflation, there is not much internal debt. So it’s an opportunity that if China can be helpful to neighbouring countries, it can also jumpstart China’s recovery – 60 percent of Asia’s trade is within Asia, so that’s a very different scale of issues here than what we may think when we first come to this particular issue. So, there’s an opportunity to doing that in a cooperative way, an opportunity of looking at these issues and working out how best China can actually put its own stimulus package in order. It has launched a half a trillion dollar stimulus package. I think that we can do some more with it. But all of this is where I think that the UN system can be of some help.