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September 21, 2014

China-Africa in the news: China’s Ebola efforts earn both praise and criticism, Mali secures funding from Beijing, and claims of corruption in Zimbabwe’s Chinese-funded projects


China ramped up its support to efforts aimed at containing the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, announcing $32 million worth of humanitarian aid and sending 59 laboratory personnel to the region. This is on top of the $5 million worth medical supplies and 115 medical experts dispatched to West Africa in August. The African Union and World Health Organisation praised China for the increased support, with Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, saying it  was “a huge boost, morally and operationally.”

Others were however less impressed. "Africa's Ebola should be China's problem," a headline in Bloomberg View said, echoing similar sentiments that China is not doing enough to help fight the outbreak. Those charges contrasted America's recent announcement that it was sending 3000 soldiers to West Africa - estimated to cost about $750 million - and the $175 million it has already spent, as well as China's trade with the affected countries.

The argument is that since China's trade with Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone far outstrips the US's trade with them, and there are more Chinese companies and nationals in those countries compared to American companies or nationals, it should be leading efforts, not the other way round.

(Although, some analysts say the aid is late and only arrived after the epidemic was out of control: “only about $26 million of the total amount was pledged or donated before July 31, even though the virus had been spreading since December 2013 and by early June was the largest Ebola outbreak in history.”)

Mali secured much-needed funding from China, with the president's office saying President Ibrahim Boubacar Keitah signed 34 agreements worth about $51 million with China during the World Economic Forum held in Tianjin from September 9 to September 13. Most of the money will be used to fund infrastructure projects; two railways linking the landlocked country to ports in Guinea and Senegal will take top priority.

The West African country is still recovering from an insurrection in its northern region and a coup in 2012. Additionally, the IMF and the World Bank froze $70 million in aid this May after the "purchase of a $40 million presidential jet and a loan for military supplies, deals that undermined donor confidence in the commitment of Mali's new government to rebuild the country."

The package from China includes a $35 million gift and a $12 interest free loan. For more on the China-Mali relationship read this policy briefing from the Center for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University.

Chinese tourists are more comfortable with a Chinese guide, even if it is Uganda they are visiting. (Or tour guides fluent in Mandarin, which Uganda does not have.) And the expensive flights to East Africa from China, which cost $1500 on average, are keeping away tourists from the region. These are some of the challenges policy makers in East Africa have to address if they want to receive more Chinese tourists, according to feedback from the China International Tourism Mart which was held in Guangzhou from 29 August to 1 September. Only Rwanda and Tanzania have secured the China Approved Destination Status in the region, "a prerequisite for guided group tours."

Still in East Africa, a Ugandan official says the Uganda government hopes it can secure $8 billion in funding from China to resuscitate its dilapidated railway network. The government has already awarded a contract to build a standard gauge railway across the country – and which connects it to four of its neighbours – to a Chinese company. It is a “huge project” for which Uganda needs “cheap money” which cannot be “got from anywhere else” but China, the official said.

A Chinese consortium is planning to set up a coal mine and a 1200MW thermal power station in Zimbabwe, which would be add to a list of energy projects being undertaken by Chinese firms in the country. The three firms are led by Shanghai Electric Group. Many households in Zimbabwe are often forced to go without electricity because the state power utility only produces half of what the country requires.

However, costs on one of the Chinese-funded power projects have been inflated, according to Mail & Guardian. The project, an extension of the Kariba hydropower plant, will now cost $533 million instead of the initially planned $370 million. Former ministers in Zimbabwe’s inclusive government blame the increased cost on corruption. China’s contribution to the project, which constitutes 85 percent of the initial projection, will however remain as planned. China’s Sino Hydro began construction work on the project earlier this month. The ministers also claim costs were inflated on other Chinese-funded projects in the country.

Two Chinese firms signed a memorandum of understanding with a Kenyan County to undertake construction projects worth $108 million. The Chinese firms will construct “houses, roads, bridges and bus parks” in Nyeri County. The Nyeri County government will provide land, while the Chinese firms will provides “funds and technical expertise.”

Meanwhile, China’s state-centred growth model may look attractive to policy makers in poor countries, but it is not as viable as they think and might prove too costly in the long-term, argues Dambisa Moyo in The Wall Street Journal.

Raymond Mpubani, Wits China Africa Reporting Project

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