Our China work


China's economic progress over the past few decades has been dramatic, but so are the challenges in social and environmental governance both within the country and in its overseas engagement. IIED's China team works to improve China's role as an international development actor at home and abroad, particularly in Africa.

Rice terraces in Changjiang Valley, China (Photo: Gabriele Quaglia)

China is now the second largest economy in the world. It has reduced the number of its people living on less than one dollar per day from 65 per cent of the population in 1981 to less than 10 per cent today. The country is on track to meet most of its Millennium Development Goals and also leads the world in several indicators of environmentally-friendly market growth, including wind-power capacity and biomass power. 

With such impressive growth it is easy to forget that major disparities and inequalities still exist; China is the largest developing country in the world, with 80 countries ahead of it in terms of per capita income. China's progress has also come at tremendous social and environmental cost both at home and abroad.

With its economic rise, Chinese overseas engagements – in the form of aid, trade and investment – have grown exponentially. It is now Africa's largest trading partner.

But while China's engagement in sectors such as forestry, mining, agriculture, infrastructure and hydropower have brought significant economic benefits to the African continent, social and environmental safeguards of such investment have been called into question.

At the same time, reliable data on Chinese investments across the continent is often lacking. There is an urgent need for grounded research on the realities of these activities, as well as constructive solutions-oriented partnerships between Chinese and African policymakers, researchers and NGOs. 

What is IIED doing?

IIED's China Team works to foster sustainable development in China and in its overseas engagement. We focus on research and policy exchanges between China and other countries where IIED has strong ties, particularly in Africa. We primarily work on natural resources and land-related sectors (agriculture, forestry, mining and other land-use sectors). Our work encompasses two themes:

  1. China Going Global: We examine the role of China as an international development actor in the world. In China and Africa, the China team engages stakeholders in research, international exchanges, and policy advocacy in forestry, agriculture, mining, infrastructure and other sectors that affect rural communities and the environment.
  2. China's lessons for the world: We explore China's experiments with sustainable development over the last 40 years of rapid economic development. We collaborate with Chinese researchers and policymakers to reflect on progress and draw on lessons learned, and we share insights with global development stakeholders in sectors such as agriculture, drylands and green economy.

Fostering collaboration and joint action for sustainable investment in Africa's forests at the China-Africa Forest Governance Learning Platform event in Tengchong, China (Photo: Simon Lim)

IIED's approach  

Our work entails learning to understand Chinese perspectives, investing in research to better understand Chinese development models, and ensuring that this research informs constructive next steps to influence better development outcomes both in China and abroad.

From a global perspective, 'engaging China' may seem an unattainable goal, but by working with key Chinese actors in specific sectors and geographies we find there is room to influence the direction of change.

Other international organisations are also doing work on this topic, but gaps remain. There is often a lack of:

  • Credible research from the field, involving direct interactions with Chinese and local actors
  • Direct exchanges between Chinese and African policymakers, researchers and practitioners, and
  • Tools for engaging policymakers in China and abroad on sustainable and pro-poor trade and investment.

IIED brings unique strengths to fill these gaps:

  • Global leadership in shaping sustainable development research and policy
  • Deep networks with national-level stakeholders in Latin America and Africa built up over 40 years, and
  • Insightful research based on case studies and in-depth interviews with actors in the field.

Together with our local partners in research, civil society and government – in China and abroad – we support better decisions on policy, investment and practices for pro-poor and sustainable development.


Trilateral cooperation in agriculture: Achievements and lessons from AgriTT, Lila Buckley (2017) Project Materials