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China in Africa: The Real Story

Chinese Aid and Luanda General Hospital in Angola: Still Falling Down?

Deborah Brautigam

Angolan Cartoon: Crumbling Hospital
Last year we learned that Luanda General Hospital, built by Chinese company COVEC under China's aid program (not under China's multi-billion dollar line of oil-backed credit) had developed severe cracks and was closed, with patients living in tents on the grounds. A critical op-ed on Chinese engagement in Angola published recently in al-Jazeera by Angolan human rights activist and journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, led with this story, arguing that many Chinese projects in Angola had problems with quality.

It is not surprising that some of the hundreds of projects constructed between 2004 and the present under what has now become a $10 billion infrastructure program have problems. As Marques de Morais notes, Angola has weak monitoring and enforcement capacities and a lot of corruption: "After all, Brazilian and Portuguese construction companies have expertly exploited this environment for decades, leading Angolans to create a specific lexicon for the resulting public works: disposable roads, Styrofoam bridges, facade works, etc." China also has a lot of corruption in infrastructure at home, and infrastructure is known worldwide as a sector rife with corruption.

As we know, a Hong Kong based company, China International Fund, is also involved in infrastructure in Angola, although the Chinese government has officially distanced itself from CIF, telling Marques de Morais: “CIF is a company that has no construction record or credentials.” I wouldn't be surprised to find problems with infrastructure built under CIF.

But I was surprised about the hospital. As I noted in The Dragon's Gift, the Chinese have a long-term sense of responsibility for projects financed under their aid program (but not export credits) because aid is an important tool of diplomacy. Because of this, the quality of projects financed under the official aid program is usually very good, and these projects often seem to have life-time guarantees. I looked into what happened in the case of Angola's Luanda General Hospital. Here's what I found.

The decision to build the 100-bed $8 million Luanda General Hospital was made in 2002, and after tenders in China, COVEC won the bid and constructed the building between July 2004 and February 2006, " using 90 percent local labor."  On his visit to Angola in 2006, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the hospital to officially open it. In June 2010 serious cracks developed in the walls. The patients were evacuated, the hospital was closed, and the Chinese government dispatched a team to investigate.

Their conclusion was that the problem was (the Chinese official claimed) partly Chinese and partly Angolan. According to the contract, apparently, the Angolans were supposed to provide geological survey data for the location, but this data was not accurate, and therefore the design by the Chinese architects was flawed. (Seems to me that given weak state capacity in Angola, this basic task should not have been left up to the Angolans.)

A Chinese official told me: "After several rounds of discussion both sides have reached consensus on how to address the problems. The Chinese side will build some temporary wards and sewage systems for patients to ensure the operation of the hospital. Then the maintenance work and expansion of the hospital will begin." The Chinese government will finance the new construction.

Will COVEC be given the job, or will another Chinese company do the work? That's not clear, but what is clear is that one messed-up hospital project has cast a particularly large shadow over hundreds of other less visible Chinese construction projects in Angola that do not seem -- so far -- to have had such dramatic flaws. Yet what is also clear is that the environment for construction in Angola, as Brazilian and Portuguese companies have found, tends to produce infrastructure with lives that are "nasty, brutish, and short". Perhaps it's time for a new international NGO to focus on monitoring transparency and accountability in public infrastructure projects. "Engineers (and Architects) without Borders"?