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India-Africa Forum Summit: China is ahead, but Africa’s needs and India’s experience are a good fit

By Seema Guha

The India-Africa Forum Summit, one of New Delhi’s most ambitious diplomatic outreach events in over two decades, is underway in the capital though the gathering of heads of states is slated for the 29-30 October.

This is not the first meeting of the India-Africa Forum. The UPA began it at a modest scale with the unassuming Manmohan Singh hosting some African leaders in 2008. This was followed by another forum summit in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in 2011, on an even smaller scale. But the third India-Africa summit, will be an extravaganza in keeping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal preference for mega shows.

Much is being made of the fact that leaders of all 54 African countries have been invited and that the majority of them have agreed to attend. Indian officials say it will be the largest gathering of African leaders outside the continent A former foreign secretary sees it as an indication of the faith that African leaders have in Modi.

 India-Africa Forum Summit: China is ahead, but Africa’s needs and India’s experience are a good fit

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj meets African leaders ahead of the Summit. Solaris Images

China way ahead in the race

The outcome of the summit will be judged by converting the promises that are likely to be made on both sides into action in a continent where China’s footprint is all over. China has been wooing Africa for the last 15 years or so. It has been pouring billions of dollars into ports, rail tracks, football stadiums, highways, dams and other major infrastructure projects.

China is Africa’s largest trading partner doing an annual trade of roughly $200 billion, though the figures keep changing according to price of commodities. Much of the trade is related to getting Africa’s oil and minerals shipped to mainland China to fuel its insatiable hunger. With the slowing down of the Chinese economy there is anxiety among some in Africa.

India is also wooing mineral-rich Africa for the same reasons as China. As India’s economy takes off again, the need for natural resources will steadily mount. Already India is buying oil from Nigeria Algeria, Mozambique and Angola, ONGC Videsh is now looking to invest in West Africa. India realises it cannot compete with China’s cheque book diplomacy. Nor is it trying to do so.

Instead India has been concentrating on institution building, on education, telemedicine and skill development projects. None of this is spectacular, but touches the lives of ordinary Africans.

Agriculture is the next big thing New Delhi is looking at in Africa. This will probably come up for discussions at the summit. Senior officials meet on Monday was devoted to working out a development charter for what India and Africa can do together. This will be finalised and made public at the end of the summit.

Africa’s needs and India’s experience are a perfect fit

One important lesson India has learnt with its experience in Afghanistan is not to dictate what it wants to do. The focus now is on asking Africa what it wants of India. Considering that India and many countries in Africa face similar challenges, both can learn from each other. India is looking at Africa’s successful experiment with mobile banking and hoping to adopt some of this to conditions in certain states here.

India’s pharma products, the generic drugs which have been opposed by big multinational drug companies, have saved millions of lives in Africa. The copy-cat drugs made by Indian pharmaceutical companies have brought down the prices of drugs, and brought down the cost of treating Aids to affordable levels. All this has been noted in Africa. Today Indian pharmaceutical products provide 80 percent of medicines in poorer African nations.

New Delhi has extended concessional credit to various countries in Africa to the tune of $7.4 billion, most of which stands approved and at least half of that already disbursed. This concessional credit is responsible for the creation of about 137 projects in 41 countries today. The Pan-African e-Network, the brainchild of former president APJ Abdul Kalam is working well for Africa. This connects universities and hospitals in 48 African nations to counter parts in Indian cities for professional advice and training. A fibre optic network built provides satellite connectivity to the centres. Capacity building has been one of India’s strongest planks of cooperation. New Delhi has awarded 25,000 scholarships for students across Africa.

A resurgent continent is now taking charge of its own affairs and has worked out a blueprint for development for the year 2063. India has smartly studied the agenda document and hopes to align African priorities with India’s activities. India is not interested in flooding Africa with cheap goods as China has done. Its key is human resource development, helping to replicate successful Indian experiences in Africa and taking what suits India.

UN Reforms

India is hoping to get the support of as many African countries as possible for its bid for permanent membership in an expanded UN Security Council. The African Union (AU) has not yet worked out its strategy as nations are all wrestling to get in. India believes that India and Africa are not at odds on UN membership and can work together. But unless AU finalises its stand it is hard to predict what can happen.

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Updated Date: Oct 28, 2015 14:24:29 IST