Luxembourg, July 13, 2019
The Two-Way Street: CSO Engagement and Infrastructure Development
One of the challenges of infrastructure finance is the enormous long-term implications on society at large. Much of these implications are positive. Increased transport connectivity, electricity access and public services have enormous benefits for people. But there are also potential negative long-term implications. Projects that do not respect the local ecosystem, culture and customs can irrevocably damage both the environment and society. Worse, the costs of poorly designed or executed projects are sometimes shouldered by future generations. Think of projects not designed to account for climate change risks, regulatory transition or the changing ways in which people interact with technology or the physical environment.
That is why engaging civil society organizations (CSOs) is important for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the Bank is doing so through CSO dialogues at the 2019 AIIB Annual Meeting. Even more, given that AIIB does not have country offices, the need to engage, listen and get feedback from a wide spectrum of CSOs is essential to the Bank’s mandate and operations.
It is not always an easy conversation. Infrastructure development brings both positive and negative benefits, and no project is free from negative impacts. There are difficult choices. For example, clean energy comes from renewable energy sources such as sunlight but solar photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing can be very water-polluting and requires the acquisition of land. Likewise, new roads can connect poor rural communities to better public urban services but may exacerbate air pollution and transport congestion or affect local customs and culture.
In both multilateral development institutions and CSOs, many on each side view the other with suspicion. Development is viewed as a zero-sum game—either we win and they lose, or vice versa. This lack of trust and reciprocity hampers truly effective communication and collaboration. Far be it for a bank only three years old to change this overnight. However, to flippantly accept that this dynamic is “how it is” lapses into cynicism and resignation, and certainly misses the opportunity to build a future the Bank envisions. To this end, the key is engaging with CSOs toward understanding the issues to solve and prevent problems.
This year at its annual meeting, AIIB has greatly expanded the scope of its engagement with CSOs to keep the momentum. Multiple exchanges—both offline and online, on stage and off, and at various levels—will be happening. The scope of discussion is broad and detailed, as the issues of projects, strategy, policy, implementation are tackled. Interactions are not limited to the annual meeting; communication and engagement has happened before the meeting and will certainly continue after.
Ultimately, however, the proof will be in the pudding. AIIB will be judged by CSOs, and by society writ large, by the actual results of the projects it finances. By the same token, AIIB requires the help of CSOs to achieve its ambition of contributing to a better world through helping members address climate change and their sustainable development goals. The enormous social, environmental and economic challenges the world faces require radically new partnerships, collaborations and actions, and the AIIB Annual Meeting itself is a modest yet important step toward that end.
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