For China, SDGs are often a cover for Belt and Road projects
The predominant architecture of foreign aid in today’s world, which prioritizes transparency, inclusion and accountability, has been developed and codified in a unipolar system – with leadership and accountability. important American influence. Since the end of the Cold War, Western donors have supported this framework, developing it and codifying it in the Millennium Development Goals of 2000; the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness; the Accra Agenda 2008, which builds on the Paris Declaration; and the 2011 Busan Accord to standardize good development practices, norms and standards.
This architecture is now under pressure, in large part due to China’s growing interest and influence over today’s predominant development paradigm: the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Beijing’s interest comes at a particularly important time, as the UN’s Agenda 2030 – which calls for the achievement of all SDGs by this year – seems even more out of reach due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in low- and middle-income countries. COVID-19 forces the development community to take stock of current progress on Agenda 2030, while recognizing that the framework that will follow it will be forged within the constraints of an increasingly competitive and multipolar world.
Chinese leaders know the SDGs are important. Their rhetorical leadership on this issue began in 2015, when President Xi Jinping, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, called for aligning the goals with China’s flagship infrastructure and global development agenda, the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. The UN – where Chinese officials occupy an increasing number of high-level positions – has been widely receptive to the idea, with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying in a speech in Beijing in 2019 that “the United Nations is ready to support the alignment of the Belt and Road Initiative with the Sustainable Development Goals.
While many U.S. policymakers are closely monitoring China’s efforts to expand its influence across the broader political components of the UN, its nascent interest in influencing development has received less attention. This discrepancy, in part the result of the Trump administration’s agnosticism toward the SDGs, has allowed China to influence the system around its goals, from data collection to nationwide implementation, often so as to promote Beijing’s interests while threatening the neutrality of the SDG Framework.
In response to this growing Chinese influence and the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, the United States should re-energize its leadership on the SDGs to preserve the autonomy, inclusiveness and transparency of the 2030 Agenda.
It is often difficult to get a complete picture of the impact of Chinese aid in developing countries. However, analysis of recently released country-level reports from a China-funded United Nations project offers an interesting window into Beijing’s interest in the SDGs and its broader approach to international development. The project, entitled “Jointly building the Belt and the Road towards the Sustainable Development Goals”, was launched in 2016 and is currently in its closing phase. It focused on capacity building and national policy guidance, and the reports provide an interesting insight into China’s international development vision.
The project’s final report examines a wide range of Chinese-funded development initiatives in 14 countries, from the Czech Republic in Cambodia. Most of them are designed to support infrastructure development — No. 9 of the 17 SDGs. For example, 54% of Chinese-funded projects in Cambodia were on transport, while 47% of spending in Laos went to infrastructure. The final report finds that these infrastructure projects carry a series of social, economic and environmental risks for participating countries. He notes that “rigorous environmental and social assessments are necessary before project approval, and a monitoring mechanism is necessary to ensure that these assessments are not biased in favor of the entity implementing the project.” However, there is little evidence that these processes actually take place, nor does there appear to be an active effort to align projects with host governments’ own SDG priorities. For example, while Bangladesh has expressed its desire to focus on the SDGs related to green energy and climate change adaptation, the majority of BRI’s support to the country has gone to the Chattogram coal-fired power plants. and Payra.
China’s growing activism on the SDGs appears to be for the express purpose of ensuring that norms, rules and standards are preferential – or at least not detrimental – to the BIS.
The Cambodian report discusses a mismatch between BRI-funded transport infrastructure and local poverty reduction goals, noting that Chinese state-owned companies tasked with implementing development projects often bypass local laws on development. jobs, stimulate deforestation and undermine road safety, which in turn make it more difficult for the country to achieve its SDG priorities. Country reports collectively give the impression that the BRI-SDG program operates not as a co-planning effort but as co-branding, in which the Imprimatur of the SDGs is applied to BRI-funded projects, even those that do not take into account local objectives. or work against development priorities at the national level.
After reading the BRI-SDG reports, it’s hard to avoid understanding that China’s interest in SDG programming directly threatens the neutrality of the shared vision of the SDGs, in a way that goes against of its own rhetoric. Beijing’s 2021 international development white paper cited a desire “to improve global governance in international development cooperation and to protect the international system with the UN at its center.” The SDGs can be seen as an important part of this core. But China’s growing activism in establishing the dominant global development order appears to be for the express purpose of ensuring that norms, rules and standards are preferential – or at least not detrimental – to the BIS.
This should alarm decision-makers around the world, who have a vested interest in making development inclusive, transparent and accountable. The SDGs cannot become a seal of approval for controversial or failed projects.
It is incumbent on aid donors to uphold a development vision that balances their own investments in sectors where China has shown little interest – such as health, education, climate and governance – with light actions. more confrontational to respond directly to cases where China bypasses international markets. standards in its engagement with the objectives. This means empowering local actors to call for efforts that undermine shared development goals rather than promoting them.
The United States has a powerful role to play by investing in locally determined commitments while rejuvenating its influence within international organizations responsible for specific SDG targets. After four years of neglect under Trump, US President Joe Biden has an important opportunity to lobby the United Nations system to uphold the values of transparency and accountability in the implementation of the Goals as a global brand.
Finally, the United States should document its development progress, including its long-standing national governance challenges, through a voluntary national review. China’s National Voluntary Review, published in July, told a radical story of the country’s path to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and its commitment to do the same for others. By not doing its own review of SDG progress, the United States has lost the opportunity to tell its own international development story, from the Marshall Plan to today. The review process offers the added benefit of using the goals to connect the work of international and domestic policymakers to ensure that the Biden administration’s foreign policy goals serve the American middle class.
In its interim national security guidelines, the Biden administration tasked policymakers with ensuring that the United States sets the international agenda and the norms and values on it. At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is hampering progress on the SDGs and China is expanding its influence over multilateral institutions, the international development architecture should be a priority, not an afterthought, of this exercise.
Kristen A. Cordell is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations at the Center for Strategic International Studies. The opinions presented here are its own and do not represent any of its affiliated institutions.