Economic Corridors as Infrastructures of Extraction

Economic Corridors

Economic corridors are geographically targeted development initiatives currently under construction on nearly every continent of the planet. While hard infrastructure such as transportation links, power generation, ports, and industrial zones contrive a spine, economic corridors are distinguished by accompanying “soft infrastructure” including business-friendly policies, regulations, and institutions to facilitate trade and investment. They feature prominently in foreign policy and development initiatives worldwide and have provided scaffolding for billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure investments. They will likely do the same for those spurred by the “Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership” recently announced by the G7. Yet despite being around for over twenty years, relatively little has been written about economic corridors beyond the grey literature supported by multilateral development banks.

Notable exceptions to this dearth of conceptual engagement include those framing them as technologies of nationhood (in Malaysia), a form of licenced larceny (in Africa), tools of containment and enclosure (in China), and neoliberal institutions and new frontiers of capital (in India). In an article recently published in the Review of International Studies I contribute to this literature on corridors and infrastructure by proposing we should understand economic corridors as an essentially extractivist paradigm: a constellation of policy prescriptions that advance processes of valorisation and accumulation based on the subjugation of human and extra human nature to intensified exploitation. The adjective “extractivist” here denotes a process whereby capital draws on its multiple outsides as it depletes the social bases of wealth. This includes but is not limited to the plundering of the earth and biosphere, extending also to social dimensions of exploitation, such as the reorganisation of production and social relations that enable production.

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Land, property, technology: interrogating an infrastructural promise

Land has served as a central means of sustenance, but also as a nexus of wealth and power for people throughout the ages. The World Bank has estimated that more than seventy percent of the world’s population lack access to legally registered land titles. Existing land registries are centralized databases, vulnerable to corruption and destruction. There is an increasing turn towards emerging technologies such as blockchain for recording the relationships between people and land, coordinating and synchronizing that data for efficient governance, and making the information publicly available.

This essay explores the abstraction of blockchain as employed for formalizing land rights in emerging economies. Behind the seemingly neutral façade of the technology, diverse aspirational claims and narratives guide its implementation in different societies, shaped by particular histories and socio-political contexts. This highlights the need to explore blockchain-based land registries as distributed knowledge infrastructures, uncovering their broader embeddedness in older, non-digital modalities, and the “peopled infrastructures” of informal networks with their histories and cultural repertoires. As digital technologies can facilitate an illusion of enhanced visibility of some elements while obscuring others, I argue that more attention is needed to the role of broader colonial legacies and enduring North-South inequalities that frequently remain backgrounded in the adoption of such technologies.

An increasing number of governments are investigating the prospects of transferring their land registries to blockchain (Graglia and Mellon 2018). Blockchain applications are explored as enabling the formalization of property rights in the countries of the Global South, as well as providing more efficient coordination of real property markets in the Global North. Blockchain registries have several advantages as compared to centralized digital or paper-based databases. Records on blockchain are distributed and verified by a multitude of nodes in a peer-to-peer digital network, affording them more transparency and resilience. As new additions to the chain of blocks are cryptographically time-stamped, this makes tampering or accidental data loss less likely. Auto-executing “smart contracts” that transform legal agreements into code could mediate contracts (De Filippi and Wright, 2018).

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Community Infrastructure and the Care Crises: An Evaluation of China’s COVID-19 Experience

This blog post was originally published on the India-China Institute/The New School’s Pandemic Discourses blog.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the gendered impact of care work globally, but lessons can be learned from countries like China that have relied on community organizations for solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a severe care crisis throughout the world. The measures to contain the infection – lockdown, social distancing, quarantine – severely disrupted activities crucial to the basic functioning of society from cooking to cleaning, childcare, elder care and more. The experience of China shows the critical role of the community in providing essential services.

Like in many other countries, women in China assume disproportionately more care responsibilities than men. With the care crisis intensified by the pandemic, women from different socioeconomic backgrounds were all significantly affected. Urban women mostly saw themselves shouldering more household chores when hiring domestic workers or seeking extra help from family members became impossible or difficult during the lockdown. As most female migrant workers are employed in the precarious informal sector, they had to endure job losses and economic hardship, in addition to extra childcare and household chores. Female healthcare professionals risked their health working on the frontline while having to bear the added mental stress of possibly carrying the virus and spreading it to family members.

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Less flow, more pressure: accessing water in N’Djamena in times of Covid-19

“You need pressure to make water flow” Nikhil Anand

Pressure is not always a metaphor for “constraints” or “burden”; it is also a concrete and basic requirement for municipal water supply. Across many cities of the Global South, end-users, city officials, development NGO professionals or agents of the water business (street porters, water fountain managers or public water tap owners) struggle to provide and access water services – a process often characterized by negotiation and contestation. In N’Djamena, Chad, hardships linked to everyday water access fuel two distinct paradoxes. First, maintaining water pressure is a constant source of economic pressure. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, end-users were already compelled to adapt their “hydraulic habits” to their needs and financial resources. Evidence on the ground indicates that the pandemic has introduced a second paradox: the Chadian state has taken official steps to mitigate economic pressure in the daily life of inhabitants in Chad funding a 6 month free water policy, but this has done little in practice beyond decreasing the water pressure (the necessary force that pushes water through pipe, makes it flow and available to end-users) for N’Djamenois who need it most. As such, this blog post argues that economic pressure for the poor has increased while water pressure has dropped as a result of the pandemic and a government intervention that explicitly aimed at addressing the issue Quite predictably, the pandemic has generated additional economic constraints on informal businesses and might have complicated an already knotty landscape in addition to tremendous climate-related problems, foremost among them flooding. However, available evidence suggests that the policy designed to alleviate the burden of bills on those in need failed. Instead of increasing water availability, it reduced and in some cases even cut the water flow. The limited extension of the water supply network also made the policy pointless to many, while wealthier end-users connected to the water supply network enjoyed the policy as a bonanza. This demonstrates that infrastructural expansion, not just emergency funding, is critical to any meaningful water and sanitation improvements.

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Sino State Capital and the Strengthening of Serbian Stabilitocracy

Chinese labour workers and their team manager laying the tracks on the Belgrade-Stara Pazova section of the Belgrade-Budapest railway. Source: author’s own.

The Belgrade-Budapest Railway has been lauded as the flagship Belt and Road project of the wider Central and Eastern European (CEE) region, and as such is promoted by Beijing as a successful template for Sino-CEE cooperation concluded via the 17+1 initiative, established in 2012 to foster relations between China and 17 CEE countries. In its host context of Hungary and Serbia, the investment has been politicised from the get-go, wherein criticism has largely focused on the project’s violation of EU public procurement rules, which require competitive dialogue and open-tender processes for projects of substantial size.

We would expect the Belgrade-Budapest Railway to be subject to greater scrutiny in both Hungary, as an EU member state, and Serbia, where external legitimacy of the EU is an important cornerstone of regime legitimacy, stemming from broad-based support for EU integration and cooperation. While this has played out in Hungary where there have been protests and where the EU launched infringement proceedings against the construction for non-compliance, the Serbian section has proceeded relatively unhindered.

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