Chinese Investment Boosts Infrastructure Development in East Africa

Billions of dollars from Chinese investors began to transform the dream of the East African Railway Master Plan into a reality. Dating back to 2008, the plan aims to revitalize East Africa’s economy through the expansion of infrastructure and the development of trade hubs. Managed by an intergovernmental organization, the East African Community (EAC), consisting of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, the plan involves rejuvenating and standardizing existing railways in the region and extending them into other member states of the EAC.

The project continues to incite fierce division and face severe setbacks. Notably, political instability in Kenya and concerns from conservationists over the plan’s potential environmental impacts slowed the plan’s progress. However, proponents of the project argue that protection of the country’s wildlife should not outweigh protection of its people.

“We can’t say to the Nairobi resident: ‘You have to sit in a traffic jam for the rest of your life,’” said the chairman of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, in The Guardian, echoing a sentiment shared widely among a country where over 20 million people still live in poverty, according to UNICEF.

Many economists and policymakers agree that transforming transport will stimulate local economies throughout the region, creating at least 60 new jobs per kilometer of track laid and contributing to an annual GDP growth of up to 1.5 percent. CNN experts also predict that the railway will strengthen political and cultural ties across the EAC.

“This project will define my legacy as president of Kenya. What we are doing here today will most definitely transform... not only Kenya but the whole eastern African region,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta at a 2013 ceremony celebrating the beginning of construction.

In addition to replacing railway lines in Kenya, such as the now-defunct Lunatic Express, the project also includes plans for a massive pipeline through Uganda, as well as a 32-berth port on the country’s northern coast, multiple international airports, and a global road system.

China contributed the majority of the funds needed for these projects, financing 90 percent of the railroad and investing over 2.1 billion dollars into Tanzania’s stretch of track alone.

This massive investment may prove problematic, however. Western critics frequently assume that China’s interaction with Africa is motivated by a desire for natural resources. Funding projects like the Uganda pipeline may allow for such wealth to be efficiently funneled out of the continent. David Shinn, a professor at George Washington University and the former ambassador to Ethiopia, warns that as the US doubles down on its isolationist rhetoric and OECD aid funding stagnates, China may step in to “fill the void left by the West.” This process, he argues, essentially develops a monopoly on large infrastructure projects in the region.

For now, the future remains unclear as the short-term benefits dominate national rhetoric and the long-term shortcomings, such as the sacrifice of economic autonomy, continue to be ignored.