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"The BRI at 10: A report card from the Global South"

A new AidData report analyzes the first survey to systematically capture perceptions of China’s BRI among leaders who make and shape development policy in the Global South



AidData - an international development research lab - released a new report, BRI From the Ground Up: Leaders from 129 countries evaluate a decade of Beijing's signature initiative, that analyzes Global South leader views on Beijing as a development partner, the trade-offs that may come with PRC development projects, and how the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is evolving as it moves past the decade mark.


The report finds that 79% of leaders surveyed viewed Beijing as actively supporting their countries' development, and 38% selected the PRC as their infrastructure partner of choice, outstripping other major powers. But nearly one-quarter of leaders struggled to articulate the BRI's purpose, and 40% were uncertain whether their country was even a part of it. 

Photo Xinhua

Leaders had more defined views on how Beijing’s engagement in their country has changed over the last decade. Three-quarters of leaders reported that the PRC had increased the number and size of projects in their country since 2012. The majority reported an uptick in Chinese laborers, suppliers, and firms to implement these projects. 


"Opinion runs hot on whether debt-financed infrastructure development will be a net positive or negative for BRI partner countries," noted Samantha Custer, AidData's Director of Policy Analysis and an author of the report. "We believe that country leadership is an important voice in this discussion, and we wanted to highlight that perspective."


The economic gains attributed to the BRI were significant, with leaders reporting improvements in connectivity (58%), trade (47%), technology access (50%), and job creation (49%). Leaders appreciated the BRI’s provision of favorable financial terms (37%), perhaps relative to the cost of borrowing from private capital markets, and minimal policy conditions (41%), which contrasts with the more conditional approaches of traditional Western aid. But cooperation with China under the BRI umbrella involves a series of trade-offs, leaders said. Concerns were raised over poor transparency (32%), lower project quality (22%), and minimal capacity building for local partners (32%). Leaders also reported pressing concerns over the BRI's environmental footprint, highlighting worsening levels of air and water pollution (45%), resource exploitation (49%), and climate vulnerability (42%) as particular challenges. 

“These findings suggest that leaders are aware of the costs and benefits of BRI projects,” said Custer, “pointing to the need for greater scrutiny and negotiation to ensure that projects align with the long-term interests and development goals of partner countries.”

The authors find that both Beijing as well as its strategic competitors are at a crossroads. “Beijing must be prepared to navigate vulnerabilities in light of a growing gap between what it is willing to fund and what its partner countries want,” said Custer. Other development finance players should also take note: “Heavy-handed attempts by the PRC’s strategic competitors to vilify Beijing’s contributions as entirely bad for local economies are likely to ring hollow." Instead, the U.S. and other donors should seek to help countries maximize the economic benefits of Chinese-financed development projects, while mitigating debt distress, environmental harms, and higher corruption levels.


Over the last decade, AidData has helped separate myth from fact by transparently documenting the scope, terms, and implementation of China’s global development portfolio. However, far less is known about how Beijing’s prospective partners in the Global South view the costs, benefits, and outcomes of these projects. In an effort to address this blindspot, last year AidData fielded the BRI Perceptions Survey to systematically collect insights from 1,650 leaders in 129 low- and middle-income countries and territories on their experiences with Chinese-financed development projects.


The BRI, unveiled in 2013, positioned China as the world’s go-to infrastructure banker, promising to enhance global connectivity through ambitious infrastructure projects. China has become the largest source of development finance in the Global South, having committed more than $1.3 trillion since 2000, with much of this in the form of debt financing supporting infrastructure projects in relatively risky financial markets. Yet, Beijing is not only the banker behind the Global South’s infrastructure bonanza. It has also become the world’s largest and most controversial debt collector—with total outstanding debt at $1.1 trillion and 80% of Chinese lending in the developing world made to countries in debt distress. 


Even while facing skepticism over the sustainability of its investments, China remained the preferred infrastructure partner of choice for a considerable portion of the Global South, the report finds. Leaders held a strong association between the BRI and infrastructure projects, especially those in transportation, energy, and telecommunications (68%), overshadowing its potential contributions to other development sectors. This path dependence poses challenges for the BRI as China seeks to broaden its scope and appeal.


The BRI Perceptions Survey leveraged AidData’s Listening to Leaders (LTL) global sampling frame of leaders in low-and middle-income countries, which has been continuously updated since 2010. For the BRI Perceptions Survey, the researchers fielded the survey in six languages to a subset of 50,000 public, private, and civil society leaders in 129 target countries. The fourth wave of our flagship survey, LTL 2024, is currently in the field in over 141 countries, asking leaders for their views on their countries' development priorities and a broader set of development partners, with results expected later this year.

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