Role of business sector and its peacebuilding potential need to be redefined in Belt and Road Initiative, experts blog

Author: Bernardo Mariani and Tang Xiaomin, Saferworld, Published on: 21 October 2019

“‘Belt and Road 2.0’: engaging the business sector”, 16 October 2019

… we attended a conference in Vienna on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) organised by the American International Group in cooperation with Roland Berger, Chatham House and the Vienna Insurance Group. The meeting was a valuable opportunity to glean insights on the role of business in addressing peace in conflict-affected and fragile countries along the BRI…

… Panellists noted that Chinese policy and business people are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges of implementing projects along the BRI and the need to adopt a new approach…

The lack of transparency around the BRI was tackled from several different angles…  Several panellists talked about the need to create more of a level playing field to motivate international businesses and share best practices in managing large scale infrastructure and financing projects…

During a panel discussion on engaging with communities, we heard about studies showing that in contexts like Central Asia, the South Caucasus and Belarus, the people-to-people pillar of the BRI has been largely overlooked. Six years after its official launch, the public perception in those countries is still very mixed. Bringing relevant information to communities in countries along the BRI, and encouraging inclusive dialogue and public participation in major project decisions largely relies on the good will of external investors and decision makers in the host countries.

The initiative will be judged by the difference it makes to lives of people living in contexts affected by underdevelopment, conflict and instability. We took the opportunity to emphasise the interactions between BRI projects and peace and security in conflict-affected and fragile environments, where a true win-win for both the companies operating along the BRI and the people living there relies on a deeper understanding of the local context, sensitivity to different drivers of conflict, and genuine dialogue with communities.

… for the countries where security is under threat and where political and ethnic tensions can lead to violence, its success will depend on how businesses acknowledge, understand and engage with fragility and conflict. There’s a need to redefine the role of the business sector and its peacebuilding potential… Instead of fixating on how to minimise risks to their investments, businesses need to take a more holistic perspective of risk and look at how they can take up more effective approaches in responding to complex conflict dynamics – helping companies, financial institutions and insurers identify both the risks that they may face as well as the positive impacts that investments can have for communities. This would allow them to anticipate threats and identify strategies for avoiding, reducing, or addressing them.

As a sector, we as peacebuilders need to remind those working in conflict-affected regions that building a sustained dialogue with communities beyond the ‘peacewash’ of some corporate social responsibility projects is a crucial – but often neglected – aspect of their engagement. No matter how much budget there is for risk management, the basic idea of listening closely to the concerns of people in countries where companies invest is one of the most critical aspects of risk management out there. Embracing a more systematic process of engagement and dialogue between communities, civil society and companies can take different forms, each of them requiring specific approaches and resources. One useful initiative would be to set up business and peace working groups with relevant local people and groups as well as company representatives. These working groups would jointly analyse the context and address any grievances coming out of BRI projects…

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