Sunday, July 25, 2010

China's Roads in the DRC: Good, bad, or ugly?

DRC Minerals & Infrastructure
From Le Monde Diplomatique - Philippe Rekacewicz

Home again for a few days, I found a China-Africa posting on Chris Blattman's terrific development economics blog. Chris provides a link to Texas in Africa who writes:
"Say what you will about China's multi-billion dollar deal with the Congolese government to trade infrastructure development for access to minerals with little regard for human rights and environmental issues. They've still managed to turn a big segment of North Kivu's main highway from this [photo] into this [photo]."  Read more and see the photos
The comments following the post run the whole range of opinions. Some assume that these roads are being built solely to transport the DRC's copper ... to China.  The Chinese infrastructure package does include a railroad from the mine-rich Katanga area to the port. Yet as the map above shows, there is a mix of roads that will serve to link the DRC to its neighbors (the green bands on the map above are transport corridors being built under the package. This map can be seen much more clearly at Le Monde Diplomatique).

Some warn that the new roads are unlikely to be maintained. This is a huge risk, although the deal also includes toll roads which in theory could provide an incentive for a commercial operator to swap maintenance for tolls.

One person comments that he/she lived in Tanzania while the famous Tan-Zam/Tazara railway was being built in the 1970s. The cost of poor quality goods Tanzania was required to buy in connection with the this project was higher than the value of railway, he/she alleges.

I doubt this, simply because of my understanding of the facts around the supply of these goods. With the Tazara railway, as with many other Chinese aid projects built during the late 1960s and 1970s, Zambia and Tanzania had difficulty financing the local costs (local labor, local inputs for the civil works, compensation for land and resettlement, if any, etc.). So the Chinese, who had very little foreign exchange at that point (how things change), provided finance for local costs. Because the renminbi could not be used in Africa (i.e. it was not a convertible currency), they shipped Chinese consumer goods to Zambia and Tanzania, allowing the two countries to sell them on the local market and use the proceeds to pay for local labor, etc.

This commodity financing was very similar to some provisions in Title I of the US PL-480 law which allows US food surpluses to be sold for local cost financing (on a concessional loan basis) of projects in cash-strapped countries. I believe the supply of Chinese goods was also financed under the concessional loans that paid for Tazara.

As a researcher in the 1980s, I saw that this had been common practice on Chinese projects, and I was surprised that there was no follow up to retain a Chinese export market. That wouldn't happen until at least a decade later. Today, it's hard to imagine African markets without Chinese goods everywhere. But that's another story.


  1. The accusation that the roads are being built exclusively from mines-to-ports denies the reality that Chinese construction projects are underway across the DRC's urban areas that have no connection to resource extraction. As for the Western skeptics who criticize the Chinese for shoddy construction or their lack of commitment, well, we'll just have to wait to find out however it is safe to say that Chinese construction in 2010 is definitely not the same compared to their work on the Tazara in the early 70s.

    My Congolese friends and myself both feel the Chinese do deserve some credit though for their sheer determination to just get things done. When was the last time you saw and American or British civil engineer leading a road construction crew at 7am on a hot Sunday morning? It just doesn't happen anymore or on any where near the scale of what the Chinese are doing.

    I took a few pictures from that Sunday morning when the Chinese construction parade passed under my window in Kinshasa.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Eric, and for your blog -- Deborah

  3. I'm no expert in roads, but I've been on a half dozen or so of these roads being built around the country. The one thing that surprised me is how different the different sites seem to be in terms of quality.

    Some (like the Beni-Kisangani road Texas in Africa cites) seem to be really excellent, while others are not. I don't think chinese road construction is a monolithic thing - I would guess that 10 years from now some will still be there, others won't.

    I am sure there are several different chinese companies working, with different levels of seriousness and integrity; as well as different levels of local oversight.

  4. Eric, thanks for the comments and pictures. I was shocked with the boulevard in January. And I scared to death when my taxi driver was speeding at 70 MPH!

  5. "I would guess that 10 years from now some will still be there, others won't."

    This is pertinent.

    What the Zhongnanhai apologists fail to see with regard to Chinese infrastructure projects is that the only ones Beijing is concerned about are those that will connect resources with the ports they will end up controlling.

    Roads that are primarily for domestic transport purposes will, I predict, look like Potemkin highways in the short term and mismanaged, crumbling dirt tracks in the longer term.

    In other words, Mike's observation about differentiated standards of workmanship is unlikely to prove a random phenomenon. I'd quite happily read evidence to the contrary, but I'm not about to hold my breath waiting for it to appear.

    Objectivity (by which I mean critical scrutiny and reporting) about China's role in Africa is the only responsible way to demonstrate that one cares about the future of the most impoverished and exploited continent on the planet. Giving China a free pass on Africa is akin to writing opeds for the People's Daily; and such one-sided, self-congratulatory discourse has never come close to representing the truth.

    There's no debate about China's African deals in China, just 'win-win', 'brothers in arms' propaganda routinelt peddled through the media and textbooks. The reality is more complex, of course, and nobody knows for sure what China's impact in Africa will be in 20/30 years time. The best we can do for Africans while we're waiting to find out is to keep Beijing honest. And anyone who understands anything about the Chinese government is in denial if they think that's going to be easy.

    If some of these roads are already in disrepair, somebody somewhere needs to be asking why.

  6. Having traveled across the roads of West Africa by bus and bush taxi numerous times since 1983, I can attest to the challenges of keeping paved or unpaved roads maintained no matter who the original contractor happened to be.

    Stuart, your prediction that Chinese interests will "end up controlling" ports in resource-rich countries is interesting ... but what evidence do you have that makes you suspect such a plan?

    Your hypothesis about the goals of Chinese construction companies overlooks another major factor: many of them aspire to the positions currently occupied by Western, Korean, and Japanese construction companies (e.g. Fluor; Kellogg, Brown & Root; Bechtel; Siemens). With this goal in mind, a reputation for quality construction becomes important. In 2008, Chinese contractors reported revenues from engineering and construction contracts in Africa of over $20 billion. They are already winning half of all construction contracts let by the African Development Bank, and Chinese firms win more World Bank construction contracts in Africa than firms from any other country.

  7. Appreciate the reply, DB.

    I don't have any evidence (as yet) to support the notion that China is, in effect, building an infrastructure to service its own resource needs first and foremost. Except that it would typify the kind of strategising that Beijing employs to get what it wants on the global stage. Nothing wrong with that per se, but I'm not convinced that China has any real interest in improving the lives of Africans in the process of sustaining its own growth. Again, I desperately want to be wrong about this. Africa deserves a break.

    "...many of them aspire to the positions currently occupied by Western, Korean, and Japanese construction companies..."

    Of course they do. But the fact that they're beating other interested parties to contracts is not necessarily an endorsement of quality (not that China can't deliver quality- it most certainly can). It's primarily to do with undercutting on costs through the use of overworked and underpaid imported labour that has no voice - an influx that brings with it cheap imports that locals can't compete with. That's a double-whammy for Africans right there.

    Can China deliver quality projects on time better than anyone else? Yes. But there are reasons for that, and those reasons are both ethically suspect and of limited (unless negative) impact on the lives of Africans. Further, if China gets control of African ports (and it will) together with the blue-water navy it craves (and it will), then God help Africans when they once again ask why others are getting rich at the expense of their own quality of life (and they will).

    I know I'm a naysayer on the 'China in Africa' story, but it's not because I'm a pessimist: it's because I'm a realist. China plays a zero sum game, and, for the time being at least, Beijing can succeed in Africa simply by painting themselves as 'not like those white guys'. But for how long?

  8. The fundamentals do not change. China's involvement in Africa stretches far and beyond, and the myopic belief that it is all for the benefit of Africa does not serve to benefit the continent in anyway. If you are keen on the "development" agenda that China has coined for Africa, and you look beyond what goes on in Kinshasa, then you will get to understand that alot more is at stake that the common man thinks they know. In the long run, Africa is just, but part of a wider scheme for other countries' end game.