China's Belt and Road Initiative and poverty reduction
Motor vehicles travelling on the north-south leg of Highway 2000.

The third Belt and Road Forum was held October 17-18, 2023 in Beijing with more than 1,200 participants from China and across the world. Among those in attendance were ministerial level officials, heads of business associations and representatives of 59 Fortune 500 companies.

The theme of the two-day conference was "High-quality Belt and Road Cooperation: Together for Common Development and Prosperity."

President Xi Jinping, who introduced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) 10 years ago to connect the People's Republic of China, the Chinese people, and Chinese businesses with the rest of the world announced eight major steps that China will take to enhance Belt and Road cooperation. These include supporting an open world economy; carrying out practical cooperation; promoting green development; advancing sci-tech innovation, and supporting people to people exchange.

In April 2019, Jamaica became the fifth Caribbean nation to sign on to the BRI. Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator Kamina Johnson Smith and Chinese Ambassador to Jamaica Tian Qi signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU).

XI... introduced the Belt and Road Initiative 10 years ago to connect the People's Republic of China, the Chinese people, and Chinese businesses with the rest of the world

Senator Johnson Smith said the MOU allows Jamaica and China to identify specific proposals for projects in priority areas such as trade, facilities and infrastructure, policy coordination, financial systems, and people-to-people connections.

A Jamaica Information Service report quoted her as saying, "Such connectivity, and the potential it holds can serve as a catalyst for bringing Jamaica closer to attainment of our economic growth and sustainable development goals".

For developing countries like Jamaica, the concept of the BRI is attractive, as we lack the financial muscle to invest the large sums required for proper infrastructure development, especially roads, modernising sea ports and airports.

Through the BRI, financial investments at attractive interest and repayment rates can help Jamaica develop a modern and more enduring infrastructure network.

To rehabilitate and rebuild infrastructure damaged or destroyed by repeated hurricanes have cost Jamaica dearly, and for many years burdened the island with a debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio of almost 150 per cent. In 2013, under the leadership of the Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, the Government embarked on an ambitious programme to reduce the debt to about 60 per cent of GDP.

The current Government has continued the fiscal policies, and according to Fitch Ratings, by the end of 2023 the public debt will fall to about 78 per cent of GDP and trending down.

For a very long time, with an oversized debt repayment burden, Jamaica had little left to pay for infrastructure and social programmes.

As a result, deep rural communities have very poor roads and other infrastructure. These are mostly farming communities, the breadbasket of the nation. When the road networks are damaged or in poor condition, farmers in rural communities are unable to take their produce to markets in the cities and towns. With no money, they can't feed their families or send their children to school. With no consistent earning, the cycle of generational poverty continues for rural families.

Even before Jamaica signed the BRI, the Government had entered a partnership with China Harbour Engineering Company to complete the US$730-million north-south highway which links the North Coast to the country's business and cultural centre, Kingston.

Current projects which are a part of the BRI framework include:

• The Western Children's Hospital, which was promised to Jamaica by President Xi during the official visit to China in 2013 by Prime Minister Simpson Miller. This is the first hospital to be built in the country in decades and the first children's hospital in Western Jamaica.

• The South Coast Highway development;

• The Montego Bay Perimeter Road; and

• The Morant Bay Urban Centre Development Project

Jamaicans are hopeful that the BRI will bring forth a new wave of development that is mutually beneficial and that will leave a legacy of projects that will improve lives, respect the culture and norms of our people, and leave no one behind.

China has signalled its commitment to the partnership with several meaningful and substantial gifts that will benefit the Jamaican people.

• The Jamaica China Goodwill state-of-the-art infant schools were built in Olympic Gardens in St Andrew and Morant Bay in St Thomas.

• The newly opened headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade.

• The Chinese Garden at Hope Botanical gardens.

The BRI will only be impactful and effective if communities can see the benefits and become invested in the success of the programme.

Local professionals want projects to employ not only labourers but more Jamaican engineers and management and to develop a process for skills sharing and development.

China must work with local authorities on public education strategies to inform the public on the various projects and the benefits to communities.

Jamaicans will support the BRI if they can see how each project will benefit them, provide good value for money, and is transparent.

The mutual respect and cooperation between the two countries have grown from strength to strength since Jamaica, under the leadership of the late Prime Minister Michael Manley, became the first country in the Caribbean to officially recognise China.

There is hope that the BRI can be a catalyst for anti-poverty efforts by providing support to transform poor communities into ones that are self-sufficient, resilient, and equipped to deal with the challenges that will confront them.

— Sandrea Falconer is a former senator and minister of information and gender affairs

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