India in Africa: Leveraging soft presence

At the recently concluded Africa India Forum Summit in Ethiopia, leaders of India and Ethiopia discussed the prospect of enhancing economic ties. Outside, ordinary people in Addis Ababa were rushing to secure a seat to view Indian films that were being screened. While official ties between the various governments in Africa and India have had their ebbs and flows, there is a long history of economic and cultural engagement between the peoples. This soft presence of India in Africa lays the foundation for a more productive engagement in the coming decades.

India’s democratic polity has long been a source of admiration in Africa. South Africans often say with pride that India gave them a Gandhi, and he returned as a Mahatma! And the recent emergence of India as an economic powerhouse is being watched very closely.

Many western countries, being former colonial powers in Africa, have a love-hate relationship with the people and governments on the continent. China’s rapidly expanding presence in Africa during recent years is watched with awe, as well as apprehension. It is in contrast to India’s benign presence which is not seen as a threat by any.

In 1984, the BBC aired a documentary about the Ethiopian famine, showing stark pictures of children facing death from starvation, which shocked the European consciousness about Africa out of its complacency. Over the next week, post offices across England reported a near breakdown in services, so overwhelmed were they by the charity cheques posted by citizens dipping into their savings to reach out to the unfortunates in what was deemed a “dark continent.”

Africa, including Ethiopia, has moved a long way from the searing images of deprivation. Most developed and developing countries are now making a beeline to this cradle of humanity, seeing in its rejuvenation a potential not unlike that of a new El Dorado.

The Indian government took the initiative and held the 2nd Africa India Forum Summit in Addis Ababa in May 2011. The first having been held in Delhi in 2008. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on a six day trip through the continent, was riding on the wave of Afro-optimism triggered by the Indian corporate sector, with the two-way trade between Africa and India expected to hit the $75 billion mark in just four years from $46 billion at present.

These days, it is almost inevitable that the Indian government’s efforts will be seen in the context of China’s much more aggressive foray into Africa. Infrastructure deals worth $50 billion are being signed up by Chinese companies every year building railways, ports and airports, and about $5 billion are being poured into African farms.

Chinese companies, backed by their government, are fanning across the continent looking for opportunities. But at many major project sites, Chinese workers operating from their isolated enclaves have rarely been able to build any bridges with the local communities around them.

Also, Africans are increasingly questioning Chinese goods as being shoddy and the workmanship deficient. China’s open support for the Robert Mugabe faction in Zimbabwe has not gone down well among many in Africa. Its announcement of debt relief for Zambia when a China-friendly government came to power did not go down well with politicians in the region.

It is in this context that India’s fresh attempt to engage with Africa acquires a new significance, and contrasts sharply with the Chinese approach.

India is hoping to make its centuries-old relationship with African nations bloom with a new vigour, taking on what Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says is an “agenda free approach.” Prime Minister Singh has called this, the “century of Asia and Africa,” committing to stand by the continent “every step of the way.” The Indian government had committed a $5.4 billion line of credit to African countries in its Delhi summit in 2008, adding another $5 billion this year for good measure. India’s interest may have been triggered by the Chinese march, but the government has not failed to notice that almost 500 Indian companies are already in Africa and some of them have committed to invest over $4 billion in the continent. With business booming, Indian companies are buying up farms, striking oil deals and setting up manufacturing units across the continent.

Bharti Airtel’s $10.7 billion acquisition last year of Zain Telecom with a footprint in 16 African nations had made international waves, pushing the mandarins in Delhi’s South and North Block to take note of the new African dawn. Airtel has further committed to invest $1 billion this year. Big Indian companies such as Tatas, Maruti and Mahindra are looking at major expansion plans in Africa. Most interestingly, these private companies began exploring Africa without any prodding from the Indian government.

The Indian health sector is not far behind. The Indian Medical Travel Association has always promoted India as a health tourism destination costing far less than Western nations but with no less quality of treatment. Now Apollo Hospitals, one of the most successful corporate entities in India, is planning to build global health facilities in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, and expanding from there to other African nations. India has also helped train African doctors in open-heart surgery and renal diseases.

Co-operation in malaria eradication, which kills more that 800,000 people, a large proportion of it in Africa, has meant that the “Silent Spring” of Rachel Carson’s curse, which resulted in the banning of DDT in the West, is now chortling with a new found song. Innumerable lives are being saved due to India’s export of the insecticide and newer combined therapies are finding a foothold to fight one of the biggest killer diseases in the world.

The English language helps, despite several francophone countries in Africa. At one stage Botswana President Seretse Khama Ian Khama, had said that they were all educated by Indian teachers. Thousands of African students are in India pursuing various fields. India has promised to raise the existing 3,500 scholarships for students from the continent to 13,500.

India’s historical relationship with Africa, with almost three million people of Indian origin living there, has been an advantage which can be easily built upon. The Indian government is looking on this benign presence to expand the soft power approach into areas such as health, education and technology. Projects such as a pan-African e-network to impart tele-learning and tele-medicine are already in place and 19 training institutes are being set up in various countries of the continent.

Some years ago, sub-Saharan Africa was looked upon as a basket case. But the continent is undergoing major changes. Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries on the continent, has been recording double digit economic growth for a while now. Others, like Botswana and South Africa, have significantly higher income levels than India, although there are growing apprehensions regarding the economic direction South Africa seems to be taking of late.

African and Indian leaders recognise that their economic relationship will be shaped by the private sector. In such an environment, the government can facilitate the private initiatives by providing institutional support in areas such as legislation and rule of law. Building capacities in areas such as education and health will go a long way in nurturing the economic relationships.

India’s long and soft presence in Africa provides the ideal foundation for building a new relationship in the 21st century, benefitting millions of people on both sides of the Indian Ocean.

AUTHORS: Barun Mitra is the director of Liberty Institute, an independent think tank in New Delhi. Hardev Sanotra is a freelance journalist and contributed to this article. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the authors. The views expressed in the article are the authors’ and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

Feature Article/ 7 June 2011

Help FMF promote the rule of law, personal liberty, and economic freedom become an individual member / donor HERE ... become a corporate member / donor HERE