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Another promising start

India needs to scale up engagement with Africa

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech at the India-Africa Summit on Thursday showed a fine appreciation of the terms of engagement between India and one of the world's most dynamic regions. He announced a credit of $10 billion to Africa to be extended over the next five years, in addition to the ongoing credit programme. He also pledged $600 million as assistance to the continent and 50,000 scholarships for African students in India. But more significantly, he noted the emergence of Africa with fresh possibilities. As he pointed out, 400,000 new businesses were registered in Africa in 2013 alone, and 90 per cent of the continent's young people are now registered in primary schools. Today's Africa is very far from being the development basket case it was once feared to be. The speech also touched on specific areas of co-operation: agriculture, climate change, health care, digitisation, and trade negotiations. The last such Summit was held in 2008, and while much progress has been made since then - the PM pointed to $7.4 billion in concessional credit, $1.2 billion in grants, 100 capacity-building institutions and 25,000 African students in India - it is clear that the engagement is poised for further growth.

India possesses certain major advantages in dealing with African nations. It does not carry the baggage of colonialism that the West does. But, also, recent actions by the People's Republic of China in Africa have not served that country well. While China is an increasingly powerful partner for Africa in terms of trade and investment - and, indeed, dominant in some places - this has been accompanied by concerns being expressed that it is insufficiently invested in the human development of Africa's countries, and that its actions serve to increase dependency. It remains to be seen how China's depressed demand for commodities affects that relationship. But Mr Modi signalled the difference between the two countries clearly when he said the "best partnership is one that develops human capital and institutions; that equips and empowers a nation to have the freedom to make its own choices and shoulder the responsibility for its own progress". By doing good in Africa, India would do well.

How can the government follow up? For one, it has to work harder to enable and educate India Inc in its own engagement with Africa. China's state-owned companies are often indistinguishable from the government, and naturally that is a trap that should be avoided. But India's exporters, for example, may be largely unaware - outside of one or two sectors, such as pharmaceuticals - of the possibilities inherent in the expanding African middle class. The government can and should provide mechanisms that enable Indian companies to take advantage of these unfolding options. Its direct engagement with African countries has also been well structured, in that it focuses on creating opportunities for civil society and for increasing administrative capacity; but these, too, need scaling up. It is more than a matter of shifting focus away from the West. In the matter of Africa, as in so many others, it comes down to expanding the skill set and the sheer size of India's diplomatic corps. Too many such openings in the past have not been exploited; this should not be one of them. But most importantly India has a lot to gain from Africa's oil resources and the relationship can be nurtured for mutual economic benefits.

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First Published: Thu, October 29 2015. 21:40 IST