The Chinese financed effort to build a national railway through Laos is a quintessential project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It is hard to get a fix on BRI these days, as it is invoked in ever-expanding geographic contexts (Latin America) and fields (poetry!).

But the Lao railway seems to be at the core of the economic program that has shaped the initiative a regional infrastructure project that aims to connect Chinese markets to those of other countries and ports in Southeast Asia. And it is well underway.

So if we want to know whether BRI makes sense, or even just answer “how’s it going?”, there’s a lot we can learn by taking a closer look at this project.

In a new paper, as they are evaluating the railway project in four dimensions:

1- Economic implications projected benefits as well as economic risks, particularly associated with debt burdens

2 – Procurement arrangements

3 – Labour issues

4 – Environmental and social standards

In each of these areas, the Chinese government’s approach as the financier and majority owner of the project falls short of what we would hope to see when it comes to delivering sustainable benefits to the people of Laos, who are ultimately on the hook for a significant share of this $6 billion endeavour.