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Talk by Amb. Virendra Gupta on "India-Africa Relations"

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  • October 16, 2014

    A talk by Shri Virendra Gupta, former High Commissioner of India to South Africa, on “India- Africa relations” was organized by the Africa, LAC and UN Centre on October 16, 2014. During the talk and the ensuing discussion several issues related to India engagement with the continent were raised.

    Many regions within Africa have fast growing economies, for example, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia and Nigeria. As a result of this there is an increase in the confidence of the African nations to be more assertive and wanting to take decisions on their own issues. But the increase in economic growth and the abundance of natural resources that are needed to be tapped continues to attract developing economies like China and India. But the new assertiveness that the African nations are demonstrating has forced many countries like India to change its strategy of engagement in the continent.

    It is also important to understand the changing nature of the political environment. Democracy in Africa has taken stronger root and there is a huge intolerance towards any form of autocracy or military coup. This has shown that Africa is slowly maturing in dealing with its own affairs. Rwanda is a good example of how good governance can revive a nation which was once engulfed with a brutal civil war.

    At present, growth in Africa is based on its mineral wealth and India is becoming increasingly dependent on Africa for its requirement for resources to fuel its own economic growth. The economic footing of India in Africa has increased considerably since 2001. India has made substantial investment in Africa and about 150 Indian companies have interacted with the region. The Indian companies’ main offices are in South Africa which will eventually branch out to different regions.

    Gradually, African nations are resenting the way China is conducting itself. China is following a more Western mercantilist (predatory) approach where they are solely engaging in Africa for extracting its valuable resources to fuel its own economic development. Also the relationship between China and African regions is of donor and recipient.. China only gives material aid to the African regions and does not participate in skill development and job creation for the local African population. The Chinese model has therefore been exposed and is something that India should not replicate.

    Historically, India has been part of the freedom struggle and decolonization movement in Africa. As a result of which India has attained a certain level of good will and respect from the African people. Keeping this similar history of colonization in mind, India has always been involved in Africa not as an exploiter but as a contributor.

    It is wrong to perceive the continent as a homogenous entity. This is because Africa is very diverse. Also, African Union as an institution is not roboust. Many strong players in AU for example South Africa and Nigeria often not represent the affairs of the other less significant regions in the continent. Also, since the AU is not a cohesive organization, channeling foreign aid collectively is difficult. Hence, a Pan-African engagement is not advisable for India until there is a certain level of cooperation among the African nations themselves.

    However, India-Africa Forum (IAF) Summit is a platform through which India engages with African nations. Though the last two summits have been relatively successful, it is still a challenge to deal with many diverse African nations collectively in one forum. Unfortunately, the current IAF Summit which was scheduled for 2014 had to be postponed till 2015 due to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

    India should consider building stronger ties with African nations through regional engagement. Like China, India is also an emerging donor country from the South. However, unlike China, India treats the African nations as an equal partner. It would be easier for India to deliver on its commitments on technology transfer, skill development and job creation with African regions separately. India can also enhance this connection culturally with the help of the Indian diaspora, especially with those who relate more to their Indian roots, and create an awareness regarding India's contribution and investments in the different regions.

    There has been some muted criticism of India’s Africa policy. It has been noted that the Indian missions in Africa are not sufficient in number and this may be a hurdle in enhancing relations with the continent. At the same time there are problems from the African side too. In terms of India’s development assistance to the region, the mechanism of identifying projects is very bureaucratic which results in delay. Hence, a mechanism has to be discovered so that aid reaches efficiently.

    There is also a lack of academic collaboration between India and Africa. Indian tertiary level of education is well established and should offer more opportunities to African students to come and study and contribute in generating knowledge about the African subcontinent and also equally learn about India. This knowledge generation will help strengthen the ties between India and Africa.

    The meeting ended with following recommendations:

    • India should only offer help to the African nations which it can fulfill. Raising the expectations of the African communities and then not delivering on it would send the wrong message.
      As the Africans are now becoming more independent and are capable of solving their own affairs, they will value India's aid and contributions if it seems beneficial to them.
    • Engagement at a bilateral level is more effective for enhancing India-African relations.
    • India should not follow the predatory policies of China and treat the African nations as equal partners.

    (This report was prepared by Ms. Kuhoo Saxena, Research Intern, IDSA)