Experts call for more inclusive overseas infrastructure projects

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Odyssey of the Dragon (OD), DI Insider and other NGOs held a workshop on promoting the inclusive development of China’s overseas infrastructure projects on July 29.

The workshop focused on the sustainable development of China’s overseas infrastructure projects, with attendees debating how to improve their inclusiveness and ensure projects benefit disadvantaged groups. Speakers shared the experiences of Chinese NGOs operating in a number of countries.

Overseas projects need support from Chinese NGOs

Yao Ying, a senior researcher from DI Insider, was the first speaker at the workshop. She has completed a long-term research project on NGOs and social movements in southeast Asia, and has recently spent two years conducting field work in Myanmar.

She pointed out the necessity for Chinese NGOs to participate in overseas projects from three aspects: the problems of environmental and social governance encountered by Chinese companies, the deep-seated causes of these problems, and the experiences of NGOs that have already participated in such projects.

She mentioned that conflict at the community level is one of the most prominent ESG problems plaguing China’s overseas projects. It includes specific issues such as land acquisition compensation, resettlement, reemployment, and pollutant treatment for all stakeholders.

Local political conflicts are another issue that cannot be ignored. Because some investment target countries have an unstable political environment, such as Myanmar, conflicts at the community level are easily exploited by ultra-nationalists and groups with prejudice and misunderstandings against Chinese nationals, which may evolve into a complex and intractable conflict at the national level.

Chinese companies often face multiple constraints when dealing with such problems:

First, restrictions caused by companies’ internal management framework.

Most of the problems are handled by PR departments, which find it not only difficult to carry out immediate crisis response, but are also not ideally suited to the early detection, prevention and long-term solution of such problems.

Second, lack of professional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) staff.

The CSR work of most companies is undertaken by program managers and translators. Due to a lack of CSR expertise, their solutions are usually simple aids without systematic design, which often fail to achieve CSR goals, and may even encourage local reliance on compensation, causing longer-term problems for the project.

Third, restrictions or even conflicts caused by local partners.

Due to local legal requirements or the limited capabilities of Chinese companies, many overseas investment projects rely on local partners. Whether the right partner can be found and whether the partner has a good relationship with the local community can have a significant impact on the project.

Yao proposed that in order to solve the above problems, the intervention of Chinese NGOs should be promoted to give full play to the advantages of neutrality, flexibility and dedicated personnel. “This way, we can leverage a larger local social network and promote the sustainable development of overseas infrastructure projects by relying on enterprise-community conflict mediation, project environment and social assessments, and other CSR solutions.

Chinese NGOs should participate more in global governance

The second speaker was Zhang Yi, a lawyer from Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Center (BCLARC). Taking the organization’s experience as an example, she introduced the ways that Chinese NGOs can participate in global governance through the UN.

By the end of July, about 6,000 NGOs around the world had obtained consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), with only 86 of them based in China. As a pioneer, the BCLARC obtained consultative status in 2011, and has participated in speeches at the Human Rights Council as an observer, held side events, and participated in the formulation of human rights-related treaties.

“Consultative status can help NGOs to deepen understanding and self-advocacy, seek and strengthen cooperation, and participate and promote the development and improvement of related issues.”

Zhang also answered technical questions about matters needing attention in participating in United Nations activities, application conditions, procedures, and requirements for ECOSOC consultative status.

Tools and practices to advance inclusive infrastructure development

Yang Ruikan, partnership specialist from the UN Women’s Representative Office in China, pointed out that infrastructure construction that fails to consider gender issues will exacerbate gender disparities, while gender-sensitive infrastructure can increase women’s participation rate in the labor force, promote economic growth and help ensure sustainable development.

She cited a case of China building a farmers market in an underdeveloped country. The original intention of the project was to provide a comfortable working environment for local female merchants engaged in selling farm produce.

However, due to a failure to take into account women’s opinions during the design process, the newly-built market did not consider women’s safety, privacy and other factors, resulting in a large number of female merchants deciding not to use the market, which indirectly led to a decline in the status of women locally.

“The lack of an inclusive perspective on infrastructure construction may exacerbate the plight of vulnerable groups, leading to longer working hours, increased poverty, violence and crime, and health problems,” Yang explained.

Kong Zhe from Beijing Youth Bridge Foundation, introduced the case of an Asian Development Bank (ADB) project to upgrade rural roads in Cambodia.

He explained how the ADB has developed a workforce and gender mainstreaming action plan including road upgrades, asset management, and improved safety and security to address inclusivity issues, such as insufficient female workforce participation in infrastructure, increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases among migrant labor and within a floating population, and increased risk of human trafficking due to improved transportation.

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