Qu Dongyu was recently re-elected as director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, a specialized agency within the United Nations system. This news directs attention to a trend that has come under increasing scrutiny: China’s expanding engagement with the UN development pillar.
Since taking over in 2019, Qu has been credited with making FAO more agile through management reform and innovative partnership mechanisms, including the Hand-in-Hand initiative. At the same time, Qu has attracted criticism for his initial position on the war against Ukraine, which echoed Russian rhetoric, and for evading UN accountability structures.
Most observers struggle to come to terms with China’s growing engagement at FAO and elsewhere in the UN system. China is still underrepresented among UN staff. However, it has recently managed to significantly increase the number of its nationals in UN bodies. And while China’s financial contributions to the UN development pillar are still limited overall, it uses them in a targeted manner. One such use is the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund.
Western states have become increasingly wary of China’s inroads into UN development work, traditionally one of their strongholds. The United States and European powers have watched with suspicion as China expands its South-South cooperation work with UN bodies. They have also tried to actively limit UN engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
While scrutinizing China’s actions is important, debates should deal not only with geopolitical tensions but should also engage with the effects of ongoing shifts on UN policies, roles and functions. This might contribute to a more constructive discussion on how the UN can adjust and innovate to ensure its relevance and effectiveness in a changing global context. We identify three characteristics of Chinese engagement that have implications for the evolution of the UN development pillar.
First, China approaches UN bodies as brokers, or “matchmakers,” of development partnerships. FAO’s Hand-in-Hand initiative aims to unlock the potential of different partners’ resources and direct them to places that require external support. The matchmaking element is also at the heart of the Program for Country Partnership at the UN Industrial Development Organization, introduced under its former Chinese Director Li Yong (2013–2021).
The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), headed by Chinese nationals since 2007, has also taken this approach. China’s focus on matchmaking differs from the predominant Western approach to UN development work. It puts a stronger focus on bilateral relations among member states, frames cooperation as mutually beneficial and approaches UN entities mainly as vehicles for Chinese development support schemes.
Second, China’s expertise and support elevate selected areas of UN development work, offering an alternative take on UN policy priorities. This has been particularly visible through Chinese investment in big data for development. Both FAO and DESA have recently set up multiple partnerships with China, including China-based data centers. In addition, FAO’s geospatial platform now provides the basis for a precise geographic targeting of development interventions. China has also long been a popular source of knowledge for agricultural policies and poverty reduction measures that UN entities help disseminate across the globe.
Third, China is contributing to a broader shift in the UN’s development philosophy. Compared with the holistic approach promoted by the 2030 Agenda, China’s interventions often focus on economic development and infrastructure measures. Efforts to reach Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9 — on infrastructure, industrialization and innovation — are significantly underfunded in UN portfolios. Chinese assistance practices can therefore both complement and challenge the UN’s commitment to sociopolitical change and its human rights-based approach. The Hand-In-Hand-initiative, for instance, often focuses narrowly on economic wins. Project documents detail “returns on investment” while SDG integration or human-rights concerns appear at the margins, if at all.
Taken altogether, Chinese engagement with the UN development pillar reflects a notion of multilateralism that differs from established (Western) concepts. These concepts frame UN entities as actors, nurtured by core resources and drawing legitimacy from their neutrality. China seems to see the UN more as a platform for facilitating bilateral exchanges, thriving on individual member state contributions.
China’s approach receives low scores on conventional global governance indices. But it might well offer a mechanism for adjusting the UN to changing political realities. Beyond Chinese power and expertise, a stronger — and more explicit — focus on bilateral stakes might strengthen the UN’s relevance among an increasingly divided membership. It might also open avenues for drawing on development solutions from across the board and overcoming outdated North-South assistance models.
However, China’s approach also comes with a major risk. A UN built more directly around states’ discrete and immediate priorities will find it difficult to maintain its commitment to individual and human rights and a long-term focus on global public goods. In line with the UN Charter, it is in the interest of all member states to ensure that the global organization provides a stable normative foundation for multilateral cooperation.
Regardless of China’s representation within UN executive positions, its engagement with the development pillar will co-shape the future of multilateralism.
This essay was originally posted on The Loop and has been republished with permission by the authors.
Max-Otto Baumann is a senior research for the German Development Institute, a federally-financed think tank based in Bonn. His work focuses on institutional and political aspects of UN development cooperation.
Sebastian Haug is a senior researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), where he examines global power shifts, development partnerships and the United Nations. He is the lead editor of “The ‘Global South’ in the study of world politics” (Third World Quarterly) and has published in outlets such as International Affairs, Global Governance and the Journal of International Development. Building on his work for the UN in China and Mexico, Haug is a co-convener of the Research Colloquium on Triangular Cooperation and regularly advises (inter-)governmental bodies on South-South cooperation. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Oxford and a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. @sebhaug