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China in Africa: The Real Story

School Construction: World Bank versus China

Deborah Brautigam

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.