Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, things seem to be looking a bit brighter. With an average annual growth rate of eight percent since 2001 and over one million people lifted out of poverty, Rwanda is poised to continue growing by leaps and bounds. Even so, 20% of Rwanda’s economy comes from foreign aid, only trailing its exports of coffee and tea. As with most developing countries, one of the most visible signs of growth is the new buildings sprouting from the ground around the capital of Kigali. As impressive as office buildings and shopping malls are, it remains to be seen how beneficial these structures are to the economy and people of Kigali and other developing cities.
The benefits of the construction industry in developing countries is clear. The global construction industry was approximately $1.7 trillion in 2007, and typically accounts for 5-7% of each country’s GDP. Jobs in the construction sector tend to be low-skill jobs, something that most developing countries, and especially Rwanda, have in abundance. A report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that workers in places as diverse as India, Brazil, and China were significantly more likely to be illiterate and have few years of schooling. Construction is also an investment, as there are roads, buildings, and other structures that can be used to house offices, transport goods, and improve the human and business capabilities. Kigali is already one of the most urbanized cities in Africa, and is expected to grow by 79.9% by 2025. Construction in Kigali and satellite cities is meant to ease congestion of an already dense capital of a densely-populated country.
There are some issues with the construction industry in the developing world. The first one involves property rights. Large amounts of people in cities in the developing world don’t have a title or ownership to the land that they live on, especially in slums. Hernando de Soto, president of the of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Peru, has referred to slums as “dead capital”, alluding to the idea that people make improvements by building shantytowns but are not able to use it for collateral due to red tape. The perniciousness of not actually owning the land that one’s house is built on is even worse. In Kigali, 70% of housing is informal, with the government proposing to demolish that housing and creating more high-density areas and rent-to-own schemes. However, housing in the suburbs of Kigali currently typically costs 25,000 francs ($36.87) a month in a country where 45% of people still live below the poverty line. There’s a fear that parts of Kigali could end up like Nova Cidade de Kilamba, a suburb of Luanda that is a ghost town built and funded by the Chinese.
Developing countries, and Africa in particular, have been raising questions about who benefits from the construction industry. Recent reports by investigative journalists from the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) in Kigali have found that foreign firms, notably the Chinese, have done a substantial portion of construction. The Chinese are able to undercut local firms by using Chinese contractors backed by subsidized loans provided by the Chinese state. An operations engineer at a Chinese company working in Rwanda stated that his company could get loans with an 8% interest payment while Rwandan companies could only obtain loans with 17-18%, if they could even get a loan at all.
There is a final concern about construction and corruption. Since construction contracts tend to be a fee and cost of materials, construction companies tend to be implicated more frequently. They overstate the amount of labor used on a project, pocketing the difference. One field experiment in Indonesia found that an increase in official audits of construction projects reduced missing expenditures of labor, ie nonexistent workers, by between 14 and 22%. Construction and engineering companies dominate the current World Bank list of debarred firms, the largest of which was SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian firm, which was debarred over bribery charges around the $1.2 billion funding of the Padma bridge in Bangladesh. Because of these troubling factors, questions, concerns, and confidence over construction in cities like Kigali will continue to surface.