Focus on Inherent Strength, Don’t be Distracted by China in Africa
Navtej Singh Sarna (right) Secretary (West) in MEA addresses senior officials at third India Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi on Monday. (Photo: PTI)
Navtej Singh Sarna (right) Secretary (West) in MEA addresses senior officials at third India Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi on Monday. (Photo: PTI)

Focus on Inherent Strength, Don’t be Distracted by China in Africa

Over the next four days, Delhi will be bathed in the vivid hues of Africa. Having represented India in three regions of that vast land – Algeria in North Africa, Kenya in the East, and Mauritius for an island-state taste in the Southern hemisphere – I rejoice this. I only missed the authentic West Africa experience to become a rounded Africa hand!

What could be an ideal, durable Indian takeaway from this glittering event, that is to be attended by over 40 heads of state and government? Let me present a wish list of what India might target. It focuses on our strengths, while keeping an eye on China, and going beyond instant news headlines.

Encouraging Indian Business

First, concentrate on our needs and capacity. China’s currency reserves are $5 trillion plus, while ours are a modest $350 billion. Nor do we have Beijing’s hunger for African raw materials. Thus our investments and aid disbursement must be aligned to our capacity and strengths. Perhaps the mega-projects, such as sports stadia, convention centres or complete airports are not for us.

Security men guard the venue before the start of a meeting of senior officials at the third India Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi on Monday. (Photo: PTI)
Security men guard the venue before the start of a meeting of senior officials at the third India Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi on Monday. (Photo: PTI)

We need to brainstorm more with our business community (especially CII, FICCI and Assocham), working at an inter-ministerial platform, to encourage investment decisions that are realistic. We rightly focus our aid on local capacity building, projects that build skills and employability. We might better harmonise these two sets of actions, business driven corporate investments and official aid projects, including those funded with official lines of credit.

MEA’s Development Partnership Administration is a fine instrument for this purpose, aided on the ground by savvy, proactive Indian embassies. The more our business learns to work with the latter, the better will be the outcome.

Relying on Local Talent

Second, unlike China, we do not send out labour teams from the home country to execute projects. All Indian investors rely on local talent, and readily transfer know-how and do-how to the host countries. That is our biggest strength – something that African states understand well.

A diamond cutting training centre under execution in Botswana as an aid project is an example. But some years before that idea took form, a private Indian company won kudos in that country by developing at its gemstone-cutting centre a local capacity to design and produce jewellery. That kind of vertical integration is what Africa seeks, and seldom gets, be it from China or the West. We should encourage our business groups to undertake more such actions.

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Asserting Ourselves in Africa

  • India needs to encourage investment decisions in Africa that are realistic
  • Vertical integration in terms of relying on local talent is what Africa seeks, and India can fill that gap, unlike China or the West
  • Education entrepreneurs like Amity, Manipal, or BITS-Pilani should be encouraged to target Africa
  • Upgrading professional skills of people in various streams can be another area of cooperation

Tapping Education as an Asset

Third, education that is adapted to African needs is another unique Indian asset. Twenty and thirty years back, 3,000 and 4,000 university students from Kenya and Mauritius and other states, annually, flocked to India. That phase has now ended, with new universities and polytechnics coming up across that continent. Now their need is for more academic institutions, and this also finds India uniquely positioned.

Flags of various African countries fly at Vijay Chowk ahead of the Indo-African Forum Summit 2015 in New Delhi on Monday. (Photo: PTI)
Flags of various African countries fly at Vijay Chowk ahead of the Indo-African Forum Summit 2015 in New Delhi on Monday. (Photo: PTI)

An article in The Economist of October 10, 2015 detailed how different Indian education entrepreneurs, be it Amity, Manipal, or BITS-Pilani, are moving into different parts of the world, including in advanced states. They should be encouraged to target Africa; the latter might facilitate them in practical ways, say providing land, via public-private partnerships. Rather few countries have the expertise and staying power, least of all China, for such engagement.

Our Strength in Africa

Finally, training fellowships, under the Indian Technical & Economic Cooperation Programme (ITEC) have long been our asset in Africa – be it to churn out solar power service providers by women trained at Barefoot College in Rajasthan, or to upgrade the professional skills of experts in many disciplines. Of the gross total of some 25,000 annual training slots that India provides, about half go to Africa. Why not dramatically step up the slots for Africa to 30,000, or even 50,000 per year? We have the capacity, and such people-exchanges are among the finest, most durable friendship builders. Again, no other country can match India in this field.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is received by MoS for Information & Broadcasting, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Photo: PTI)
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is received by MoS for Information & Broadcasting, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Photo: PTI)

Too many of our media commentaries seem fixated on stereotypes – ‘China dwarfs India in…’, or ‘…but that is nothing compared with China’s figure of…’

Let us grasp a few home truths.

The Chinese economy is five times that of India, with foreign trade, investment and aid capacity to match. That country has seen a sizzling 10 per cent growth per annum for over 30 years – unprecedented for any country. By all means, let us transport to India some of China’s experiences, selectively adapting these to our authentic needs. That is the value of comparison, not a pointless, one-dimensional lament. And as the above instances show, we have our own strengths in Africa that are unmatched.

(The writer is a former ambassador and an author.)

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