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The United States assumes the role of promoting infrastructure development in Africa, previously held by China.
Africa Economy

The United States assumes the role of promoting infrastructure development in Africa, previously held by China.

The U.S. State Department has officially announced that their efforts to renovate and expand the Lobito Corridor, a railway connecting Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to an Atlantic port in Angola, are progressing rapidly.

In the past, other nations have faced setbacks in their efforts to make significant infrastructure investments in Africa. China has been attempting to strengthen its presence and improve trade connections in Africa through investments in ports and railways, but the outcomes have been varied.

Projects that have resulted in debt or remain incomplete, which are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have faced criticism. This has led to a shift in focus towards what Chinese President Xi Jinping refers to as a “small and beautiful” approach.

Recently, the Western countries, including the United States and European Union, along with three African nations and two financial institutions, have come together to sign a memorandum of understanding to improve the Lobito Corridor, which is currently only partially developed.

During an online media briefing this week, Helaina Matza, the acting special coordinator for the Partnership on the Global Infrastructure Investment (PGII), announced plans for a six-month feasibility study to begin before the end of the year. The goal is to construct 800 kilometers (500 miles) of new track within five years, with an estimated cost of over $1 billion.

When inquired about the U.S.’s strategy for maintaining the project in the long run and preventing the errors made by other international forces engaging in infrastructure projects in the region, Matza expressed positivity.

The speaker mentioned that not all concessional financing is being given directly to governments. She pointed out that the Africa Finance Corp., a private partner, is also involved and will be presenting a proposal for managing operations and maintenance, as well as developing capacity.

Without explicitly mentioning China, she stated: “I believe we have gained knowledge from errors and initiatives that we have assisted in rescuing over the years, as they required renovations more rapidly than anticipated.”

Liu Pengyu, China’s Embassy spokesperson in Washington told VOA in an emailed response that there is “broad space for cooperation in the field of global infrastructure, and there is no question of various relevant initiatives contradicting or replacing each other.”

Liu refuted the common accusation that Beijing is utilizing BRI and its initiatives to establish spheres of influence.

He stated that any attempts to use calculations to further geopolitics through infrastructure development will not be accepted and are destined to be unsuccessful.

What have we learned from the BRI?

China’s investment in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was significant, with the construction of the $4.7 billion Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya. This railway, which began operations in 2017, links the capital city of Nairobi with the port city of Mombasa.

The original plan for the railway was to link to Uganda in order to transport essential minerals to the coast. However, the project was not completed, resulting in challenges for the cargo aspect of the business. Recently, the Kenyan government announced a significant hike in passenger fares, citing the escalating cost of fuel.

Last month, President William Ruto visited China to seek a $1 billion loan for unfinished infrastructure projects. The announcement followed this visit. There have been criticisms from Kenyans regarding the railway project’s lack of local employment opportunities.

When questioned about the potential impact of the BRI on the new US/EU initiative, Yunnan Chen, a researcher at the international think tank Overseas Development Institute, confirmed that it has already made a difference.

According to the speaker, even though the BRI may face criticism in various aspects, it has successfully brought attention to infrastructure development and sparked more interest and competition in this area. This is evident by the creation of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment by the G7 and the Global Gateway by the E.U. The inaugural Global Gateway forum took place in Brussels last month and included the signing of the Lobito Corridor agreement.

She stated that the United States’ increased focus on Angola, a key partner in the Belt and Road Initiative and a top recipient of China’s infrastructure loans, indicates their intention to intensify competition in areas of China’s influence.

According to Chen, certain Chinese initiatives have received valid backlash. He also noted that railway ventures can be challenging to generate profits from through passenger and freight services alone, unless they are connected to the mining industry.

She stated that the Lobito Corridor may have more success compared to other projects in East Africa, as it is expected to have a direct link to mineral and mining projects that justify the transportation costs. However, it will be a trial to see how the United States and European Union will handle the difficulties that come with building a railway.

The obstacles ahead involve addressing social and environmental consequences as well as effectively managing the railway once it is finished, all of which have been challenges for the Chinese. Chen noted that it will be intriguing to witness how the West handles these issues, particularly with their focus on stricter standards.

The current PGII coordinator, Matza, stated that their principle for investing in any infrastructure is that the project must be transparent.

She expressed that the U.S. aims to guarantee the success of the entire corridor and that individuals residing along the corridor can engage in commerce as well as other endeavors that greatly contribute to their own and their country’s economic growth.

View from Africa

Who do everyday Africans have more confidence in for investing in infrastructure, the United States or China?

This week, VOA asked the residents of Johannesburg for their thoughts on the matter.

Luyolo Yiba, a 29-year-old musician, sat at a sidewalk cafe and felt skeptical as he sipped on his drink.

“Their focus is on obtaining minerals, making it difficult to determine which option is superior,” he stated. He also expressed doubt that the United States’ main priority is aiding the people of Africa and predicted that the funds would likely be misused due to government corruption in Africa.

According to Zoyisile Donshe, a business owner in his forties, there is no need for competition for power in Africa.

“He stated that Africa is viewed as the upcoming continent. He expressed admiration for both America and China, acknowledging their contributions to creating opportunities in Africa. He believes that the majority of Africans would welcome cooperation between the two nations.”

Matza stated that it is premature to determine if the Lobito Corridor will be connected to any Chinese-constructed railways in the area, but did not dismiss the possibility.

She mentioned that there is a considerable amount of work being done, possibly including the renovation of Tazara, a railway that connects Zambia and Tanzania.

“There is a lot of discussion surrounding the possibility of extending a rail line to the south, potentially reaching Mozambique,” she stated. “We are approaching this project in incremental steps, considering our financial capabilities and ability to provide support and input in the design process.”