India's Africa policy: can we do better?

India has a reasonably successful policy towards Africa — one that reflects a balance between our values and interests. But there is scope for improvement.

Updated - July 19, 2010 02:33 am IST

Published - July 15, 2010 01:14 am IST

On visiting the China Foreign Affairs Ministry website, you can access a document, “China's African Policy.” But if you look for a document on “India's Africa Policy” on our Ministry website, you are unlikely to succeed. Even a phone call to South Block may not help. The reason perhaps is that no such document exists.

Nevertheless, India has a reasonably successful policy towards the African continent, one that reflects a balance between our values and interests. It takes into account the diversity of Africa as well as the policies of other key players — the United States, the European Union, China and Japan.

Evolved over time, this policy owes a lot to Mahatma Gandhi, who became a beacon for Africa; to Jawaharlal Nehru, who left an indelible imprint on India-Africa relations; and to Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, who contributed immensely to India's friendship with African countries.

On international fora, India played a leading role in assisting and expediting Africa's de-colonisation process. The help it extended to the African countries in gaining independence and to South Africa in its struggle against apartheid was recognised widely and often. At the root of Nehru's belief was that India's independence would be incomplete without Africa's freedom. As a visionary, he also foresaw and strengthened Afro-Asian unity that led to the Bandung Conference and the birth of non-alignment. Political relations have since been marked by mutual understanding and support.

Later, when parts of Africa were torn by conflict, and restoring and maintaining peace became a priority, India came forward to help in the United Nations peacekeeping missions in Congo, Somalia, Liberia, Burundi and Sudan, among others.

Development has been a pressing need in sub-Saharan Africa. The Indian government has been generous in extending assistance, giving African students access to higher education, mainly under the auspices of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, and in offering technical cooperation under Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) and related programmes. These have been innovative, though modest, instruments, but their effectiveness lies in identifying Africa's felt needs and our responding to them suitably.

An important element of Africa policy relates to defence cooperation with select countries such as Nigeria, Zambia, Lesotho and Botswana in order to assist their forces through training programmes and exposure to the best practices and professionalism of India's armed forces. Cooperation in the IT, health care, agriculture, mining, small industry, infrastructure and hydrocarbon sectors has been promoted. Another significant aspect has been to cultivate good relations with the Indian diaspora in view of their role as a bridge between host countries and India.

Our Africa policy has laid emphasis, especially in recent years, on expansion and diversification of trade, investment and economic relations. Trade between the two sides stood at $35 billion in 2008. Indian investment in Africa is estimated to be $29 billion at present. Investment from Africa in India is also sizeable.

The presence in Africa of leading members of India Inc — the Tatas, the Mahindras, Ranbaxy, NIIT, and the Bharti; of public sector undertakings — OVL, RITES, Ircon and NSIC; of banks — the State Bank of India, the Bank of Baroda, the Bank of India and ICICI; and contribution by top national business chambers to wide-ranging business promotion have imparted content to India's economic representation there. The best exposition of India's policy, one anchored in Afro-optimism, was articulated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his opening and concluding statements at the historic, first India-Africa Forum Summit held in New Delhi in April 2008. Since then, India's engagement with Africa has clearly become multilayered. It runs at three levels — at the Pan-African level through growing ties with the African Union; at the regional level through Regional Economic Communities; and with all countries at the bilateral level.

From the foregoing, however, we should not conclude that there is no scope for improvement in India-Africa relations. There is. We have been on the right track, but we need to recognise that the unfolding change in Africa is complex, that its pace is rapid and inconsistent, and that competition for Africa's affection and attention has become increasingly severe. Hence there may be need for a fresh evaluation of policy issues and constraints on speedy implementation of past decisions. We need to deepen our engagement with the specific goal of fulfilling Africa's needs and aspirations in accordance with our capabilities and interests. It will require more resources — human, technical and financial — and faster speed and, above all, a change in our conventional mindset.

Two years ago, the government termed Africa “an emerging priority” in foreign policy. Now, in 2010 and beyond, Africa should be treated as one of our key priorities.

Sustained attention to Africa at the political level is essential. Happily, the first half of 2010 witnessed a successful visit by Vice President Hamid Ansari to Zambia, Malawi and Botswana, followed by the first visit to Africa — to Mauritius and Mozambique — by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. In the past six months, India has received three African VVIPs, one each from Seychelles, South Africa and Botswana. The momentum should be maintained. In the run-up to the India-Africa Forum Summit in 2011, it will be greatly helpful if our President and Prime Minister visit Africa soon. Close personal relations at the summit level are very important in Africa's political culture.

India Inc. has been on a roll in Africa in recent years. Its profile is set to increase. But Indian companies should follow a path different from that of European and Chinese firms. They would do well to adhere to the basic canons of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and to a partnership-oriented business culture. They must help Africans through value-addition, employment creation and skill development. The Africans expect them to bring new technology and substantial investment in socio-economic development which, in turn, will present attractive business opportunities.

South Block needs to create a new synergy by opening its doors to a small but talented community of Africanists working in the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, the Indian Council of World Affairs, the Association of Indian Diplomats and a few universities. Taken together, they represent valuable expertise outside the government. The External Affairs Minister, fresh from his visit to Africa, might consider convening a roundtable for an informal interaction with select experts. Fresh ideas and advice might be useful as he supervises the preparations for the second India-Africa Forum Summit. The media can help by enhancing the public interest in the continent, following World Cup 2010. Through an increased focus on Africa, they should inform, educate and entertain us. Indeed a few media organisations are already doing so. Developments in Africa are fascinating, besides having a bearing on our national interests. This exciting story is waiting to be told to audiences in India.

A powerful triad of the Government of India, India Inc., and civil society can take the India-Africa relationship to a new level of strength and vitality. Thus, to the query whether India's African policy can do better, the answer is ‘yes, we can.' The question is: do we have the will and the stamina?

(The author served as India's High Commissioner to South Africa and Lesotho as well as to Kenya.)

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