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Cutting through hype and myths that surround Belt and Road Initiative

Published on 24 April 2019

In her speech at the launch of the Belt and Road Studies Network as part of the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation taking place in Beijing, Director Professor Melissa Leach underlined the need for more rigorous and robust evidence to strengthen understanding and inform decision-making around the opportunities and challenges that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) presents in terms of achieving sustainable development outcomes.

Professor Melissa Leach gives keynote at Belt and Road Studies Network
Professor Melissa Leach gives keynote at Belt and Road Studies Network. Credit: Jing Gu/IDS

Belt and Road Initiative subject of intense, often polarised debate

The BRI is extraordinarily ambitious in both its scope and scale.   It spans over 70 countries and around 65 per cent, or 6 billion, of the world’s population, and accounts for approximately one third of the world’s Gross Domestic Product.

It is also the focus of intense, and often polarised, debate.  While some point to the promise and potential alignments with the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development (Global Goals), others highlight the associated social, economic, environmental, political and security risks and the ways in which the BRI is undermining the sovereignty and development of partner countries.

High level statements around the BRI speak of its greenness and its inclusiveness.  Yet the emerging evidence is mixed in terms of how this rhetoric is being translated into reality.  For example, investments in coal fired power plants in Central Asia or the Kribi Port Project in Cameroon have resulted in damaging environmental and social impacts including loss of habitats and forests, as well as livelihoods and homes through land acquisition which has not been properly compensated.”

In her speech Professor Leach said:

“We need evidence to dispel the myths and illuminate the realities of the BRI’s impacts. Robust evidence developed through partnerships across countries, sectors and disciplines that can strengthen understanding, as well as inform decision-making on how best to mitigate and leverage the respective risks and opportunities that the BRI brings, including accelerating progress towards global sustainable development.”

Alignments between Global Goals and BRI

Professor Leach’s speech drew on discussions that had taken place at a Wilton Park event supported by the UK Department for International Development and IDS.  Brining together senior financial and sustainable development experts, the event explored opportunities and challenges in relation to the BRI delivering sustainable development objectives.  In particular how risk – financial, political, social and environmental – was assessed, managed and mitigated and how partnerships across governments, international financial institutions, investors, multilateral development banks and civil society could be fostered and strengthened.

The Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development programme based at IDS and funded by DFID, has recently published a series of papers exploring these issues in more detail:

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