Tuesday, January 29, 2013

School Construction: World Bank versus China

In The Dragon's Gift, I made the argument that the Chinese approach to funding aid projects employs a high degree of financial control. As one African official told me: "with the Chinese, you never see the money." This has drawbacks for ownership, but is likely to mean that corruption and embezzlement is lower with Chinese aid, and the promised projects actually get built. Maintenance of course is another issue, something I also addressed in the book.
A school in Tanzania         credit: Worldcrunch.org
      Over the past six years, the Chinese government has been fulfilling a commitment to build 100 (or so) primary schools across Africa. My (so far minimal) anecdotal research in two countries on this has turned up an interesting phenomenon: at least one school out of the typical three built in a given country has been located in the home town of the country's leader. The schools are also typically of a much higher, gold-plated standard, something that is a showpiece, but difficult to sustain.
Both of these findings support my argument that Chinese aid is all about politics, symbolism, and soft power -- and not a simple swap-for-resources, as it has often been portrayed. 
     How do we do it in the West? This morning I've been reading a dissertation by one of my students, Ryan Briggs. At one point he gives the startling example of a World Bank funded school construction project in Malawi. 
     Briggs reports that of the World Bank's target of 1600 classrooms, half were never built, and according to the World Bank's own report, 340 of the 858 classrooms that were built were "left unfinished ... implementation of this component was unsatisfactory and contributed to the premature depletion of funds" (World Bank, 2001: 8).  Further, "the Government failed to provide the necessary oversight ... accounts were not well maintained ... records were not properly kept ..." (2001: 15). 
     Neither approach seems terribly satisfactory for making an impact on education. But in terms of financing school construction, the Chinese at least are dealing pragmatically with governance as it is, rather than governance as we wish it to be.

A h/t to Ryan Briggs.

Source:  World Bank (2001) "Implementation completion report (IDA-28100; pp -p9380)
primary education project on a credit in the amount of SDR 15.1 (US$ million
equivalent) to the Republic of Malawi for a primary education project." Technical
report, World Bank.


  1. Thanks for this post. The premature depletion of funds is indeed a serious problem, especially when construction in Africa is not particularly difficult when done right. I do not have any knowledge on how the funds are depleted, having no privy access to that information locally, but I have a few thoughts on construction of schools that I would like to share.

    Despite the lack of infrastructure such as well maintained roads and power grids, building schools is not particularly difficult in Malawi. Malawi does not have earthquakes, tropical storms, harsh terrain (mostly savannah) or extreme weather that could hinder construction or require complex building techniques. Malawi is also not very densely populated (with the exception of Lilongwe, Blantyre and Limbe), thus finding land to build is not that hard as long as the regional chiefs and local government co-operate to reach an amiable solution. Logistics to reach construction sites can be overcome through the use of reasonably maintained dirt roads that only become difficult to traverse in the rainy season, but little building is done during the rainy season for obvious reasons.

    Since most buildings do not need to be built to 2 storeys, there is hardly any need for steel reinforced structures. Basic single-storey brick structures with tin roofs are reasonably low cost and straightforward to build. Bricks, cement, gravel, timber, and even nails can be locally procured. 10-20 ton high clearance trucks can easily transport these materials even through harsher terrains on dirt roads. Simple construction techniques also rule out the need for large specialist building apparatuses such as cranes, etc. With the right construction supervision, these are all easily achievable. Further, there are tax exemptions for building public works that drives the cost down even lower. Thus for diplomacy, it can be quite cheap for China to use Chinese contractors to help build some small essential infrastructure to enhance its soft power image.

    Ironically, the private sector catering to secondary education has witnessed growth in Malawi with academies sprouting up all over urban areas. The private sector has been far more efficient with their limited resources.

    The biggest obstacle in my view of primary education in Malawi is:
    1) Lack of trained teaching personnel
    2) Lack of funds appropriated for said personnel, leading to brain drain to other sectors.
    3) Social attitudes to girls receiving education- source of potential educators at lower costs (gender-wage imbalance)
    4) Lack of perishable education materials- books, exercise books, etc.
    5) Lack of consistent, nationwide education policy that has led the private sector to implement their services to fill in gaps that the government cannot provide. (And also pursuing the Gold Standard of showpieces in the political leaders' hometown: University in Thyolo on late president's private land)
    5) Lack of faith in local certification (easily counterfeited, post-colonial preference for western standards)


  2. When I first enter Africa in search for investment opportunities I took interest in construction, as there were a whole lot of infrastructure (or rather, the lack of) that could be built.

    But as I started enquire about the possibilities, I found nothing but red tapes. Although there were people giving me "suggestions" on "problem solving" (aka bribery), I found that wanting.

    In other words, I am not a bit surprised at the so-called "vanishing funds" phenomena.