Edited by Maria A. Carrai, Jean-Christophe Defraigne and Jan Wouters
Chapter 10: African agency in the Belt and Road Initiative: Kenya’s rail investment as China’s flagship BRI project in Africa
This chapter illustrates how Chinese financing and contractors have created a new development option for African governments seeking to deliver infrastructure megaprojects. It provides a study of the Standard Gauge Railway built by Kenya with Chinese assistance under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) between 2014 and 2017 – a project previously assessed as non-viable by the World Bank. The chapter emphasizes the ability of the Kenyan government to set up a powerful centralized organizational structure to overcome governance challenges and coordinate work with the Chinese contractor to successfully deliver the railway. However, opacity and ballooning land-acquisition costs suggests that rent-seeking has inflated the cost to taxpayers, echoing several previous international corruption scandals in Kenya. At the level of the private sector, Kenyan agency was partly visible in vested interests opposing the project, partly in successful lobbying to access the closed procurement markets of the Chinese contractor. One of the most frequently raised issues regarding developing countries’ engagement with the BRI is (over)indebtedness, and in this case Kenya has developed a fiscal instrument to repay the Chinese loans. China’s follow-up trade and investment in East Africa is believed to be a major element of the rationale for the rail project, although concrete measures to achieve this are still lacking and regional connectivity is limited. Data on this will have to be analysed in the next decade or so. The case suggests that a centralized approach in African government engagement with the BRI can deliver projects for a reasonable (albeit inflated) cost, while development benefits and socio-economic change require active management beyond the temporary governance model to organize project delivery.
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