Rights group wary of Chinese-Congolese infrastructure partnership

Launched in 2008, Sicomines is a Chinese-Congolese project, with an estimated cost of $3 billion, to build new roads and bridges in various cities in the DRC, including  Kinshasa. Sicomines has one clear intent: to facilitate exploration and development for the mining of non-ferrous metal. Notwithstanding benefits to the mining industry, human rights activists doubt that this private-public partnership will offer benefits to Kinshasa residents as regards to labour and service delivery.

The Association Africaine de Défense des Droits de l’Homme (ASADHO), a Congolese human rights defense group, takes issue with Sicomines’ labour and implementation standards and is launching an investigation assessing the project’s social impact. Jean-Claude Katende, president of ASADHO, explains the link between human rights and the expansion of infrastructure in Kinshasa.

Valérie Bah: I’m not sure that for many people the link between infrastructure projects and human rights is entirely clear. Can you clarify this?

Jean-Claude Katende: The relationship between infrastructure projects — the construction of roads, hospitals, universities and airports — at first glance, should have positive impacts related to things such as the right to education, health, and roads, especially as they facilitate transportation to these things. Nevertheless, this is usually not the case. For example, there was a hospital recently built in Kinshasa that has only gone to serve a certain fraction of the city, and has not improved healthcare access for the general population.

VB: How is the track record of Chinese-financed infrastructure projects in Kinshasa so far?

JCK: Not good at all. For example, we researched a project [of the China Railway Engineering Corporation (CREC), which holds shares in Sicomines] in 2010, to rebuild certain major avenues of the city, and it was badly structured in terms of labour rights. The salaries that they paid the Congolese workers employed in the construction of these roads did not allow them to live. They promised $100 (per month), but (the workers) only received about 50,000 Congolese francs (about $50). Also, the workers had to cover transportation on their own. These were “impoverishing” salaries.

VB: To your knowledge, did the DRC or Chinese government ministries or contractors respond to these complaints?

JCK: We published and shared the 2010 report with many government ministries, particularly the Ministry of Employment. The government was aware, but nothing has been done. We even addressed the Chinese Embassy with this problem, and they assured us they would see about the issue, but nothing was done.

VB: Talking to regular Kinois, what is their overall perception of the Sicomines infrastructure project so far? Is it well-regarded? 

JCK: For many people, it isn’t easy to evaluate the worth of these projects because no one knows how much money they’re taking in, (and) how much they’ve accomplished. There’s a lack of transparency and no reports have been made. We want to launch a new report to evaluate what’s been done, what’s been funded, and highlight the gaps.

VB: What kind of actions would you suggest to manage the human rights risks posed by this project and other projects in general?

JCK: My recommendation would be for the DRC government to better organise itself with public funds. It has the obligation of remaining accountable to the public, and should improve on informing it on the way in which these Chinese infrastructure projects are developing.

We aren’t against these projects, but since they use public funds the public should be informed. In fact, the DRC’s constitution makes provision for such access to information, but it is doubtful when you look at what they report. For example, in 2010 one of [Sicomines’] promises was that solar panels would be installed in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. We have never seen these panels. This is also the case with generators; we haven’t seen them. Government money is public money; we want more transparency.

Valérie Bah is a Canadian freelance journalist who writes on issues of migration, marginalization, crime, and LGBT human rights. She has worked in several Canadian federal government ministries and non-profit organisations and currently serves as an associate reporting officer at the United Nations’ refugee agency in Kinshasa, DRC. She holds a master’s in International Relations from the Universidad de Cadiz, Spain.

This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series.

Headline photo: On the wall of its Kinshasa compound, the China Railway Engineering Corporation expresses well wishes to the DRC. Valerie Bah.

Read Valerie’s previous article, What future can there be for Kinshasa la Belle?


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