Sunday, February 12, 2017

China Needs to Include Effective Operations, Not Just Construction, in African Aid
By Hu Weijia
Global Times
2017/2/9 23:48:39

The Tazara railway linking Tanzania and Zambia - once a flagship Chinese aid project built in the early 1970s - has been struggling amid sustained operational woes. According to a recent report from news portal, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority "is lobbying for the cancellation of a staggering long-term debt" to normalize operations of the railway.

There is still a chance to revitalize the railroad, but it will not be easy. The Tazara rail has been burdened with huge debts and it is estimated that more than $700 million of debt will have to be wiped out to help the railway pull through its crisis. Even if the railway authority could finally solve its debt problem, how the railway would be able to achieve and maintain profitability will remain a serious challenge.

The railway and its operations were transferred to the governments of Tanzania and Zambia in 1976. The 1,860.5-kilometer long communication artery once played a large role in boosting the local economy but that has now ebbed owing to problems ranging from overstaffing to a lack of regular maintenance. Wiping its debt clean and injecting cash into the project aren't enough to revamp the system.

China has pledged to gradually increase aid and investment to Africa, and its efforts to beef up Africa's infrastructure have received an increasing amount of attention from the international community. However, it is worth thinking about how many Chinese-financed projects may repeat the story of Tazara after a Chinese team leaves. This should be a wake-up call for China to pay more attention to the way it offers economic aid and investment to Africa.

The troubles for the Tazara railway have shown that an effective operation of infrastructure projects in Africa can be more challenging than the initial construction. It's worth looking at the Chinese-financed railway in Djibouti that will be operated by China for several years before being turned over to local teams. Gaining concessions from local authorities is likely to become an effective way to maintain the vitality of Chinese-financed projects.

Media reports last year suggested that China could take over the operations of the Tazara railway to inject new vigor into the project. China has accumulated valuable experience in managing and operating infrastructure projects and now the country should strive to find a way to fit into Africa's own national conditions. For instance, building an economic belt along the Tazara line is one concept worth considering.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

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