India’s engagement with Africa has involved peacekeeping, student scholarships, humanitarian relief, and private and public sector investments. This has been the case for over half a century dating back to the Bandung Conference in 1955 which was held in the spirit of South-South Cooperation.
The conference brought together newly independent nations of Africa and Asia. They had a shared experience of struggle against European colonisation and were facing common developmental challenges.
Forty years later the first India–Africa Forum summit was launched in 2008 in New Delhi. Two subsequent summits were held in Addis Ababa (2011) and New Delhi (2015). A fourth summit has been scheduled for 2020.
These meetings explored areas of mutual collaboration and engagement. They were attended by heads of state and high level ministerial delegations. The key areas of common interest were agriculture and food security, health, education, information technology, climate change and the blue economy.
Our evaluation of the summits confirms that there is value in them – and their outcomes.
They have allowed African countries and India to agree on their most urgent priorities. And African countries have benefited from India’s investments in capacity building, transfer of affordable technology, investment in infrastructure such as roads, dams, rural electrification and solar energy.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. There were time lapses between commitments being made and implementation. This kind of tardy implementation needs to be addressed if projects are going to reach fruition.
Indian actors in Africa
Ties between various African countries and India have been reinvigorated under Narendra Modi’s premiership. Last year he set down India’s engagement with Africa under 10 guiding principles. These focused on industry, information technology, education, health, agriculture, security and intelligence cooperation and financial inclusion.
India’s policy comprises a diverse set of actors with different agendas. This includes the government, public corporations, private companies, nongovernmental organisations and the Indian diaspora.
For example, the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation and the Special Commonwealth Assistance for Africa Programme, have been part of government’s development diplomacy since 1964.
On the financial side, the Exim Bank of India gives African governments loans on concessional terms. These loans fund a range of infrastructure development projects. The money is tied to exports, with the condition that 75% of the goods and services on every project must be procured from Indian firms.
India has also partnered with Africa through trade. In 2017-18, its bilateral trade with Africa was $63 billion, up from $7.2 billion in 2001.
A number of private sector firms have established themselves on the continent. These firms have interests ranging from agriculture, to engineering, motor vehicles, financial services, construction, telecommunications, health care and pharmaceuticals.
There have also been a number of collaborations. For example, private health care and telecommunications companies have worked with state actors to implement the Pan African e-Network. Launched 10 years ago, the aim of the project was to bridge the digital divide between African countries and India through electronic information and technology. This was part of an education and health support initiative conceived by India.
The Pan African e-network has since been relaunched as the e-VidyaBharati and e-ArogyaBharati Network Project. The project connects doctors and the educators in Africa with their Indian counterparts.
Outcomes and challenges
Thousands of African students have studied under the Indian Council of Cultural Relations and the CV Raman scholarship schemes. Since 2008, the council has awarded 900 scholarships to African students annually.
India has also become a major supplier of generic drugs to the continent. The majority of Africans living with HIV and Aids are treated with affordable generic anti-retrovirals manufactured in India.
But India’s development cooperation in Africa has not been without challenges. Some Indian companies have come under scrutiny for tax evasion, violating environmental regulations and ignoring labour laws.
Agribusiness and mining firms have been criticised for land-grabbing and displacing local populations.
Another hurdle is cumbersome bureaucracy on both ends which often means that funds are not disbursed on time. This slows down the execution of critical infrastructure projects in Africa.
India also engages with authoritarian or un-elected regimes such as Sudan and Gabon. This legitimises their oppressive rule.
And, although the student schemes have been applauded, sporadic incidents of violent racism against African students have damaged India’s reputation as a country.
Deploying soft power
The ruling Bharatiya Janta Party has tried to forge closer relations with regions that have a large Indian diaspora – such as in East and South Africa. India aims to revive the Indian Ocean’s historical maritime routes and further India’s soft power in the region through cultural initiatives such as Project Mausam.
India has also tried to use the financial and cultural capital of the diaspora in Africa by granting overseas Indian citizenship. It is doing so to promote identification with the “motherland”.
Finally, India continues to highlight Mahatma Gandhi’s role in developing India-Africa relations. It does this despite the fact that the legacy of Gandhi’s 21 years in South Africa has been questioned in South Africa, Ghana and Malawi.
Critics argue that Gandhi was more concerned with the movement of Indian capital to Africa than he was with the welfare of Africans. He’s also been criticised for his views on race.
However, in several countries, for example in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal and Tanzania, Gandhi is still revered as an anti-colonial icon.
This goes to show that India cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach. It must understand the political and cultural contexts of each country with which it engages.