By Brendan Ng
Rabat – “Disposable streets, Styrofoam bridges and façade works.” These are a few of the many colorful terms used in Angola to describe the Chinese infrastructure projects that have begun to crop up in recent years.
Over the past two decades, roads, bridges and buildings have been erected at an astounding rate as part of what scholars have dubbed “the Angola Model.” Under the Angola Model, Chinese firms carry out public works projects on behalf of the Angolan government, and Angola uses its natural resources as collateral for this development.
By some metrics, this agreement appears to have been a massive success. In recent years, Angola has surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia in becoming China’s top supplier of crude oil. In turn, Angola became the fastest growing economy in the world, with an incredible annual GDP growth rate of 11.1% last decade.
There’s just one small problem – the pace of Chinese construction during this boom has been nearly matched by the rate at which these projects have gone on to crumble, collapse and disintegrate.
In theory, there is a brilliant symbiosis to this exchange – Angola is able to turn its copious stores of oil into the physical infrastructure its people desperately need, while China can leverage its construction expertise to keep up with its ever-increasing national demand for oil. In reality, business has not been nearly so mutually beneficial. China has indeed acquired vast amounts of oil, but Angola remains largely underdeveloped. Chinese firms are not only signing lucrative contracts for construction projects, but they are receiving equally lucrative contracts to rebuild these hastily thrown together roads, bridges and buildings when they inevitably collapse.
So why is Luanda still agreeing to these contracts?
Earnings for the ultra-rich decision makers in the country have continued to rise in spite of these developmental failures. As Rafael Marques de Morais describes in his essay The New Imperialism: China in Angola, “some responsibility for these failings goes to [Angola’s] institutionalized culture of corruption, incompetence, and disregard for public safety.”
Angolan elites appear to be more than content to skim billions off of Chinese oil contracts, even as billions more are being effectively stolen through sub-standard construction.
This phenomenon is situated within a larger effort by the Chinese government to augment its role as both an economic and political stakeholder on the African continent. At the 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Johannesburg, China committed to provide $60 billion of funding to African nations, effectively tripling its previous commitments in the region. Since then, from constructing monstrous new cities, to supporting agricultural modernization, China has begun to engage countries across the continent on numerous fronts.
Recently, China appears to have taken a particular interest in Morocco. On the heels of the 6th session of the Morocco-China Joint Committee for Economic Cooperation held last Thursday in Rabat, representatives from both countries declared a broad commitment to increased economic partnership. At the conference, top Moroccan and Chinese economic officials held discussions focused principally on the possibility for “bilateral ventures in infrastructure development.”
In light of what has taken place in Angola since the turn of the century, the Moroccan people have a reason for caution as Chinese enterprises turn their attention towards the kingdom’s newly discovered oil stores. Similarly to Angola, Morocco is governed by a dominant class of elites. Although King Mohammed VI has recently taken steps to push back against misconduct by the country’s ruling class, corruption has still been classified as “rife throughout the economy” by Freedom House, as recently as last year.
Morocco is a country that has been blessed with natural resources, and appears to be poised to develop significantly on the back of these resources (in conjunction with its burgeoning tourism industry). As can be seen in Angola, however, these sorts of gifts can be squandered by corruption, incompetence and mismanagement – a brighter future is not guaranteed. Unless government officials and industry leaders commit to putting profits from Morocco’s natural gifts towards the public good, it is unclear whether the Moroccan people will ever see any of the benefits they have been promised. As such, the tragic possibility emerges that disposable streets, Styrofoam bridges and façade works may begin to appear 8,000 kilometers to the north of Luanda all too soon.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.
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