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Most Batswana, including no less a person than President Ian Khama, would disagree but those who study issues scientifically assert that Chinese contractors are no sloppier than their counterparts in OECD countries.
The study by Jamie Farrell of John Hopkins University in the United States is the first attempt to quantify the quality of Chinese contractors as compared to OECD country contractors. It sought to analyse the validity of the perception that the workmanship of the former routinely produces low quality work.
Much of Africa’s developmental backwardness is a result of a huge infrastructure gap. This gap impedes effort to eradicate poverty, achieve economic growth and competitiveness as well as reduce regional trade. In closing this gap, the continent has enlisted the support of the World Bank and it so happens that most of the infrastructure projects that the Bank finances are built by the Chinese. Generally, China has highest win percentage of any nation for global World Bank contracts.
Farrell reviewed completed civil works in the transportation sector done by Chinese firms and OECD country firms between 2000 and 2007 and completed in 2013. The major finding was that on average, Chinese firms and OECD country firms produce work of similar quality on World Bank contracts in the African transportation sector. Finding no statistically significant difference between the two in terms of the quality of work, the study concluded that most criticism of Chinese firms is limited to anecdotal evidence from a relatively small number of cases.
In Botswana, Chinese contractors have caught a lot of flak for sub-standard engineering standards. In 2013, President Khama himself revealed to a South African newspaper that his government would be blacklisting Chinese contractors for shoddy workmanship. Morupule B Power Station and the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport terminal are just two examples of poorly-executed mega projects that caused the Botswana government to lose faith in the Chinese. According to sources, the highest-scoring tender for the Kazungula Bridge project was from a Chinese company called China Major Bridge Engineering Corporation. However, it was reportedly passed up for the job in favour of the second-best bidder – Daewoo Engineering and Construction, a South Korean company which built the Serowe-Orapa road to acceptable engineering standards in the early 1980s.
However, the Botswana Chinese General Chamber of Commerce has fought back against these charges. One of the points that Bing Liu, the Chamber’s chairperson, has made is that it is unfair to tar all Chinese contractors with the same brush. That is indeed the point that John Hopkins makes. Its study found that 77 percent of all Chinese contracts analysed were completed by only seven large state-owned companies, four of which had been sanctioned by the World Bank. The latter had the effect of tainting the reputation of all Chinese engineering firms. Conversely, the composition of OECD contracts was much less concentrated in a few companies.