Social, environmental impact of Belt and Road will take years to play out: SMU professor

SINGAPORE - The Belt and Road Initiative will bring trillions of dollars in infrastructure investments around the old Silk road route. But the social and environmental impacts from what is easily the biggest infrastructure and investment project in Asia to date are significant and will likely take many decades to play out.

"One of the struggles of working on One Belt One Road is that so much is happening, it's hard to say exactly what the outcomes will be," said Singapore Management University assistant professor of sociology Ijlal Naqvi yesterday at the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN)'s four-day conference.

In a recent field trip to Pakistan's Karakoram Highway, a national highway connecting Pakistan to China, Dr Naqvi, who was speaking at one of the conference sessions, recounted: "It was fascinating to see how giant infrastructure projects have the potential to do much in the lives of local people who happen to live under the footprint of an overground mass rapid transit project, or in the vicinity of a giant highway connecting them to cities that used to be beyond mountains for them."

The conference is the largest gathering of social investors in Asia, bringing together 1,000 delegates from 40 countries to address critical issues relating to climate action, education and wealth disparity, among other things.

The BRI is China's ambitious development plan? to boost trade and economic growth across Asia through infrastructure projects.

For UOB Venture Management, the BRI is an opportunity to bring companies on its investment portfolio into the countries that are part of the initiative.

Set up in 2016, UOB's Asia Impact Investment Fund, with a fund size of US$55 million, has invested in China and Southeast Asia. In China, the fund has invested in companies working on improving nutrition in poorer areas, and also those that improve agriculture practices, said Ms Ong Pei Yeing, senior director of UOB Venture Management (Shanghai).

Some of these companies, while still in a growth phase, are able to make a difference to the communities they do business in, she said.

Ms Ong recalled that the first investment she made was in a food nutrition firm. "As part of the expansion plan, the company was asked to provide a nutrition pack to many of the BRI countries where supplements were needed for children. It was a simple product but it got a lot of discussion generated around nutrition, parenting and it engaged communities as a whole.

"So it's not always the mega projects, but this kind of "soft touch" project that has also proven successful."

But for countries like Pakistan, one of the largest sites of Belt and Road activity, the measure of success of a commercial project is quite different.

"From the Pakistani perspective, it means that the power plant runs as described, and we don't end up in sovereign default. Although private loans were made out to joint venture companies, these are backed by the government of Pakistan, so that is a contingent liability on the state," Dr Naqvi noted.