Incorporating gender into Chinese hydropower development in the Mekong region

By Tom Baxter

Dr Pichamon Yeophantong, an Australian Research Council Fellow, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Responsible Business Lab and Environmental Justice and Human Rights Project at the University of New South Wales (Canberra), has been researching infrastructure financing and the impacts of hydropower and resource extraction projects in Southeast Asia for a decade. Her research has involved fieldwork across the region and interviews with staff at leading Chinese hydropower companies. She is a native Thai speaker and holds working proficiency in Chinese, Lao and Japanese, giving her direct access to diverse perspectives of the often controversial projects.

In her most recent project, Dr Yeophantong worked with partners to produce a report on the importance of women, women’s leadership and rivers in the Mekong region. In this interview she speaks with Panda Paw Dragon Claw about gender and hydropower development in the region and the extent to which Chinese companies are aware of and engaging in the issue.

PPDC: Why is gender such an important issue in river conservation and hydro infrastructure development?

PY: Gender infiltrates every aspect and dimension of river conservation as well as infrastructure development. In the recent State of Knowledge – Women and Rivers in the Mekong Region report, my colleague and I highlight how women play extremely important roles in both protecting the river and utilising its resources. The roles they play and the responsibilities they shoulder tend to be somewhat hidden and their roles in terms of sustaining households and entire communities are often not fully acknowledged.

In many communities across mainland Southeast Asia, women’s daily duties tend to centre on collecting riverine and other natural resources, as in Laos where they collected freshwater weed (kai) from the river both for food and trading in markets. Because of this role, women in these communities are necessarily in touch with the ebbs and flows of their local rivers. In this sense they are best positioned in the community to notice irregular changes in water flows and quality, such as those possibly caused by a hydropower dam upstream. Listening to women, and looking through the lens of gender, can help us to disaggregate the impacts we see of infrastructure projects on rivers and the surrounding environment.

Fishing for riverweed in the Ou River. (Image by Saimok)

For companies operating in the region’s hydropower and infrastructure sectors, many are more focused on their bottom lines or the more obvious need to mitigate social and environmental impacts. But the gender question is something that they need to take seriously as well, if they want a more holistic understanding of project risks and impacts.

It is worth noting, though, that using the “gender lens” to evaluate infrastructure projects is not just about the experiences of women as a homogenous group. The construct of “women” is, in itself, problematic, with normative ideas bumping up against intersectional differences across cultures, generations and so on.

PPDC: From your experience and your fieldwork, are infrastructure (particularly hydropower) companies operating in the Mekong region aware of gender as a critical issue and women as a critical demographic they should engage with when talking to local communities?

PY: The most that we see of women in the whole process of project development tends to be during consultations. But in the region, consultation often takes place once a project has been approved or has already begun in some capacity. The overall impression I’ve formed from the research done on this issue, including from gender impact assessments of Mekong hydropower projects and the results of our State of Knowledge report, is that women are not being consulted enough in the early phases of an infrastructure, particularly hydropower, project’s life cycle. 

And when women are invited to join consultation sessions, it often turns into a tokenistic process. The major problem here is when construction and consultation companies do not take into account the social and economic realities which may impede women’s access to and participation in the fora for engagement that they establish. There is a need for companies to develop cultural awareness before consultation even begins.

PPDC: Are you aware of any concrete examples of this happening?

PY: In Laos, for example, being an ethnically diverse country, one interviewee told me how in one village, women were very vocal and even assertive about their opinions. But in another village just next door, women were quiet and cautious about the implications of what they said. So for companies, unless they make a real effort to understand the specific cultural context and the status of women at the household and community levels, they are unlikely to engender much meaningful engagement with women in these communities. This is a fundamental stumbling block.

For Chinese companies, accounts vary. Some interviewees told me how, because women’s status in modern China [after the establishment of the People’s Republic] is relatively high, companies find it difficult to understand the generally low status of women in the Mekong communities, which remain patriarchal, and overlook the importance of including them. But I’ve also heard accounts of Chinese companies attempting to engage with communities and reacting with surprise and frustration at the lack of participation from women. They struggle to understand how they can better engage.

Of course, when a company is seeking the requisite social license to operate in an area, the easiest and fastest way is simply to approach the most important group of decision makers in a community. More often than not that is the men, and elder men in particular.

PPDC: Do external consultants help in that aspect?

PY: Companies will typically engage an external consultant to undertake impact assessment and consultation activities, but the quality of the consultants can vary a lot. I’ve heard several accounts of consultant teams comprising only of men, and how once they arrive in a village, the only people they speak to are the men, sometimes due to local norms and customs, but also due to the lack of gender sensitivity among the male consultants. For example, one interviewee recounted to me the case of a Chinese company going into the Mong Ton dam site in Myanmar to conduct surveys, recalling that once they arrived, all the women in the village seemed to disappear. This was presumably due to local taboos about interacting with outsiders, and is indicative of a deeper, structural challenge: where women in a community, despite being important stakeholders, literally become invisible.

So how are companies dealing with such issues? Overall, the accounts I’ve heard of how companies and consultants have handled these situations haven’t been positive. While there are some guides available on how to integrate “gender” and gender impact assessments into infrastructure development in the region,  there is a need to develop a context-specific, best practice guide to enhancing the gender sensitivity of project consultations in the hydropower sector—specifically, one is tailored to the Chinese business audience.

Dr. Pichamon Yeophantong conducting interview in the field (Image supplied by Dr. Pichamon Yeophantong)

PPDC: In your research you have engaged in particular with Chinese companies. Are there any notable differences in the way Chinese companies approach gender issues compared to other companies?

PY: There remains a pervasive, if not structural, lack of gender awareness and sensitivity among Chinese companies, especially among the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Their priorities when it comes to overseas investment and construction projects still lie elsewhere.

This is especially true in the hydropower sector, which is still characterised by very limited awareness of gender issues. When we look at the Chinese hydropower companies operating in the Mekong region, the majority of key decision makers within these companies are men. This also extends down the company hierarchy, where most engineers and workers will also be male.

My research team and I have recently been going through Power China’s publicly available documents. Beyond customary references to gender-disaggregated employee composition data in their CSR reports, and a reference in their ‘Indonesia Sustainability Report’ to ‘forbidding gender discrimination and child labour’, we haven’t found anything that substantially or directly addresses gender equality and gender-specific impacts as significant issues when it comes to project development and implementation. By comparison, a Western company is likely to have a greater appreciation of these issues. But that’s not to say that they are necessarily making as much progress as they should be.

Interviewees have told me how you might occasionally come across an ‘enlightened’ manager in a Chinese hydro company who understands the issues and really makes an effort to engage with locals and civil society. But the problem is, if that person gets transferred one day to another country office or elsewhere in the company, their knowledge, skills and awareness don’t easily get transferred to their colleagues.

I’ve also surmised from interviews that many Chinese companies will go into communities with the attitude that they do not want to “disturb” the local situation. Rather, they are looking to have ‘light’ engagement with local communities, tick the right boxes on community consultation, and get the project done in a time-effective manner. Granted, the big irony here is that building a large-scale infrastructure project invariably disturbs the local situation. This attitude, in some ways, mirrors the Chinese government’s long-held position of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states. But it’s this supposedly ‘light touch’ approach in its foreign policy that has also contributed to a lack of context sensitivity in other issue-areas and, at times, to misunderstandings that undermine its external relations.

PPDC: And what about on the side of the banks providing the finance which gets projects off the ground? Are financial institutes more enlightened on this issue?

PY: International finance institutions have a very important role to play in gender mainstreaming, but organisations like the Asian Development Bank have also received criticism for the unclear, on-the-ground implementation of their gender policies—and how the process too often becomes a mere box-ticking exercise. It is not enough for these organisations to collect gender-disaggregated data, they also need to put that data to good use.

Looking through the guidance documents of both the China Development Bank (CDB) and China Export-Import Bank in English and in Chinese, there is no explicit mention of the terms ‘women’ or ‘gender’ in these documents, nor an explicit consideration of gender equality or women-specific issues. But similar to the Power China documents, in one of CDB’s CSR reports, they did include gender-disaggregated data of their employee composition and mentioned a training program for female employees.

In contrast, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), as a China-initiated multilateral bank, has come up with guidelines that align more closely with international standards and expectations. Even though it doesn’t have a dedicated gender policy either, its Environmental and Social Framework does recognise the importance of gender equality and women’s socioeconomic empowerment, as well as the need to include women and other minority or vulnerable groups in consultation processes and identify a project’s gender-specific impacts. It also requires that its complaints mechanism be gender sensitive.

It appears that the AIIB is trying for an approach where gender considerations are seamlessly integrated into all stages of project review, design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation—though the reality still seems to fall short of this ideal. Concerns have been been raised, for instance, over the inadequate handling of gender-specific impacts were not adequately addressed by the Bank in its Gujarat Rural Roads Project.

PPDC: Have you noticed any change of attitude in your years of engagement with the companies?

PY: Chinese hydro companies, specifically SOEs, carry enormous normative baggage as a result of their negative image in the region–derived from their track record both at home and abroad. The fact that Chinese companies tend to fare poorly at communication and local stakeholder engagement further compounds their negative reputation. The notion that communication at the top level, government to government, is sufficient and of utmost priority adds to this problem, especially given the weak trust in national governments found among local communities in Southeast Asia. The result is that Chinese companies are widely viewed as ‘extractive’ and aligned with ‘corrupt’ government forces.

However, we are gradually seeing changes on this front, as Chinese companies become increasingly internationalised and profit-oriented. Some have also gained a sense of ‘enlightened self-interest’, the awareness that reputational issues matter and can affect their bottom line. I think the suspension of the Myitsone dam in Myanmar was a turning-point in this respect, showing that not having a social license can lead to considerable financial loss. My own conversations with staff and engineers at Chinese hydropower SOEs suggest how more are now aware of the gravity of these reputational and PR-related problems.

I’ve also heard of at least a couple of examples of large hydro SOEs proactively reaching out to local NGOs for guidance on how to mitigate project impacts and ameliorate their local reputation. In one case, the civil society groups and community representatives involved told me that they felt the SOE representatives were willing to listen to negative feedback, and that they also felt comfortable in voicing this negative feedback. But whether or not feedback leads to meaningful follow-up by the company or actually impacts on company behaviour is the question. In most cases, it seems the practical consequences of these local outreach efforts are unclear

PPDC: And lastly, what should be the role of governments in the region?

PY: If we want Chinese firms to do better in addressing gender, alongside other social and environmental issues, Mekong governments need to become stronger advocates for gender mainstreaming and women’s rights themselves. While we are seeing some positive changes in this regard. Again, to use the Lao example, the government has shown a greater willingness to involve women in policymaking, including in water management. A “spark” is needed to build momentum. Whether Covid-19 and its disproportionate impacts on women can serve as this spark remains to be seen.

Without governments putting the pressure on the private sector, it would be unrealistic to expect Chinese firms to take the initiative and voluntarily champion the cause. But without governments acting as exemplars, claiming the moral high ground to hold Chinese companies to account is also difficult. Mekong governments must take the lead.

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