Urban infrastructure projects China has launched in Ethiopia and other developing countries are expected to drive these countries' economic development
Over the past years, Ethiopia has been hit by drought, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ukraine crisis and domestic armed conflicts. However, despite the internal and external challenges, Ethiopia has kept on developing.
The infrastructure in and around the urban areas of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, has developed further, with tall buildings and wider roads emerging. The sluggish global economy and Ethiopia's domestic conflicts slowed down its development, marked by suspension in construction of buildings, muddy alleys after rains and young people queuing up for jobs on the streets. However, Addis Ababa, which used to be a crowded city with air pollution from vehicle emissions has a cleaner environment now. New projects for improving local urban environment and tourism infrastructure, such as the Sheger Park-Friendship Square built with China's assistance and the Entoto Natural Park with investment from public-private partnership, demonstrate the progress in the city's modernization.
Since the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Ethiopia more than 50 years ago, bilateral relations and economic and trade cooperation have developed steadily. China is the largest trading partner, project contractor and source of foreign investment in Ethiopia. China-Ethiopia cooperation has left its stamp on economic and social activities in Ethiopia. The first industrial park, the tallest building, the first highway, urban light rail, cross-national electrified railway, as well as roads, power stations and factories in Ethiopia are all testimony to cooperation between the two countries.
Also known as the Beautifying Sheger project, the Sheger Park-Friendship Square built with China's assistance is located near the Ethiopian Prime Minister's office in Addis Ababa. It has been transformed from a wasteland with weeds and sewage into one of the largest urban squares with the most functions in Africa. Friendship Square is part of the Addis Ababa Riverbank Green Development project. The square integrates landscape, architecture, municipal services, road, water conservancy and garden.
The project undertaken by the first Public Bureau Group of the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) was initiated on Oct 1, 2019, and handed over to Ethiopia on March 1, 2021. What was once a garbage dump is now an attractive square spread across 28.58 hectares, with 1.2 kilometers of the river water having been treated.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and conflicts in Ethiopia, the CCCC overcame difficulties in the allocation of supplies, the pressure of pandemic prevention and control and climatic limitations to complete the new Addis Ababa landmark. In 2022, the project won the Luban Prize for overseas projects of the China Construction Industry Association, which is a typical case of Chinese design boosting cross-national friendship. On the square, people can see green plants and flowers everywhere during the day, and bright lights lightening up the night sky. The details of Ethiopia's national flower, Calla Lily, designed on the podium, the map of human migration, the wall with historical and cultural reliefs, and the steps of ethnic integration on the square depict the integration of Chinese styles and Ethiopian culture.
Inside the gate is a stone from Mount Tai in China's Shandong province engraved with four Chinese characters saying "Friendship Square". The climate in Addis Ababa is similar to that of Kunming in China's Yunnan province, which is suitable for growing flowers and plants. Ethiopian people gather with their relatives and friends to take in the beauty of the square, or celebrate weddings and galas.
The public square has promoted harmonious coexistence between people and sound development of social relations, while giving a fillip to the development of real estate, commerce, education and medical care in the vicinity.
Despite uncertainties, infrastructure projects near Addis Ababa have improved notably over the past two years. The improvement in the urban environment is linked to people's stable lives and prosperity, which creates a favorable business environment, improves the appeal for foreign investment and promotes the building of a sound investment platform. However, the contrast between rapid development of specific urban areas as well as the backward urban slums and rural areas is turning stark, and the wealth gap is widening. The problem, if not addressed, will lead to potential social conflicts. Therefore, it is imperative to pay attention to the increasingly uneven development.
When assisting Ethiopia in building projects such as the Sheger Park-Friendship Square, China ensured both efficiency and quality from the planning to the implementation stage. However, entry to the square costs 110 birr (about $1-2), a price set by the Ethiopian government to meet the needs of maintenance and sustainable development. Only the upper-middle classes can afford this price; the lower-middle classes, especially the most underprivileged people, certainly can't. The balance between providing public goods for the benefit of people and sustainable development is a key issue worth paying more attention to.
From initiation to completion of the project, Chinese companies have recruited nearly 3,000 local workers, creating job opportunities for Ethiopians and promoting knowledge sharing and technology transfer. Countries such as Italy and the Republic of Korea have developed similar projects in Ethiopia, but they focus on the participation of local people, and pay more attention to promoting folk exchanges and publicity. Their cultural values have long been accepted by Africans. Such soft power of emotional affinity cannot be underestimated.
Regarding what kind of overseas assistance or cooperation projects are suitable for local demands, the Sheger Park-Friendship Square project may provide answers given the level of public participation. China has been involved in a variety of assistance and construction projects in Africa, especially in infrastructure. It needs to strike a balance between building large-scale projects and delivering tangible results.
Walking through the Friendship Square in Sheger Park, one might think of the Central Park in New York and the Olympic Forest Park in Beijing. The green areas in cities help improve physical and mental health of residents, providing them recreation zones, and boosting education, medical treatment, culture and art, as well as the economy of the surrounding areas. The role of public goods pooling in high-quality groups and driving the social civilization progress has been proven in other countries. With the launch of urban infrastructure and public goods in developing countries, the assistance projects are expected to benefit local people and drive the countries' economic growth.
The author is deputy secretary general of the Center for African Studies at Peking University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.