White House officials are on a development-minded world tour and have been scouting several corners of the globe to identify about 50 projects that focus on topics such as climate, health, digital technology and gender equality.
Daleep Singh, the deputy national security adviser for international economics, recently wrapped up a tour of West Africa, visiting Ghana and Senegal as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better World initiative, known as B3W.
Biden unveiled the plan during the June G-7 summit, with the goal of creating “a values-driven, high-standard and transparent infrastructure partnership” to help finance projects in developing countries.
“This was the first B3W listening session in Africa, demonstrating President Biden’s commitment to strengthening our ties in the region and to narrowing the global gaps in physical, digital, and human infrastructure that have been widened by the COVID-19 pandemic,” National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement this week.
These listening sessions in Africa followed a similar trip Singh led in October, when he took an interagency delegation to Colombia, Ecuador and Panama.
He will turn next to Southeast Asia, a senior administration official said. So far, the official said, the delegation has identified some 50 projects in those five countries alone. The official did not give a cost estimate but described some of the projects.
“For example, in climate, we had quite a few discussions about how we could help finance renewable energy projects in solar and hydro and wind,” the senior administration official said. “Also projects that could help reduce the rate of deforestation, which creates a carbon sink and helps these countries meet their emission reduction targets.”
Many analysts see this initiative as a counter to Beijing’s multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative. That international development program has financed infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America and has made inroads even in Europe.
And whereas China takes a firm stance against weighing in on recipient nation politics — making Chinese investments especially appealing for countries with poor human rights records and high levels of corruption — Biden’s initiative draws a different line.
The president “asked us to build this product with our democratic values front and center,” the administration official said. “So transparency, collaboration with the host countries, inclusivity, so that the benefits are spread across all segments, and also sustainability, with no strings attached.”
But critics say this may be a weakness.
“It will be difficult to create a sentiment in international markets that the BBBW is a viable, commercially credible alternative approach to financially supporting projects if it is viewed that only nations which the USG (U.S. government) defines as ‘democratic’ will be eligible to participate in it,” said Marc Mealy, senior vice president of policy at the US-ASEAN Business Council.
Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also said that showing preference to democracies could raise problems.
“The emphasis on democracy might be good and valuable in its own right,” he told VOA. “But it might not be the best framing if you are trying to build relationships and build some sort of broader coalitions to counter China’s influence in say, Southeast Asia, where, by necessity, you need to sort of work with countries that fall short of Western liberal democratic standards.”
It’s all in the details
But, analysts say, what mostly hurts the marketing of the American push is its lack of detail.
When asked if he had any criticisms of the plan, Mealy simply replied: “Can’t criticize a plan which has not been made public.”
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, the world needs $40 trillion in infrastructure, and we’re going to help out,’ ” Rohac said. “Like how that maps exactly into specific funding decisions, specific loan decisions, you know, which regions and which countries, which sectors — it’s all a bit vague. And most importantly, is this just a gimmick or are there going to be real resources put behind it by countries?”
A formal B3W launch event is planned for early next year and will include details about the projects.