How has the process of institution and governance building in Africa, a domain traditionally subject to western development interventions, been changed by Chinese-led development? Taking Uganda’s roads sector, and particularly its main implementing agency the Ugandan National Roads Authority as a case study, I argue that traditional donors’ influence on sectorial institution building has not been replaced or dislodged by China’s growing presence. This presence primarily took the form of Chinese construction companies operating as profit-driven contractors interested mainly in quick project turnaround rather than in systematically shaping sectorial governance in the host country. Moreover, not only did traditional donors’ development financing remain dominant vis-à-vis China, but the ways in which their interventions were designed, exercised, and monitored in the post-conditionality regime characteristically differed from their Chinese counterparts, ensuring their embedded and enduring role in the reforming of sectorial state institutions. As such, a tacit division of labour took shape between Chinese and western engagements in Uganda’s roads sector: China focused on ‘hard’ physical road construction whilst traditional donors on the ‘soft’ aspects of sectorial governance and policy. The availability of both forms of development engagements with their distinctive foci enables issue-specific agency for Uganda to develop its roads sector, and yet they together appear to create favourable conditions for the Ugandan leadership’s increasing authoritarianism.
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