India-Africa Forum meet must have a sharp economic focus

  • Amitava Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 21, 2015 22:41 IST
Manufacturing is one of the priority areas for southern Africa. Top automobile makers like Mercedes Benz and BMW have car-manufacturing plants in South Africa . (Getty Images)

The Third India-Africa Forum Summit, which begins in New Delhi next week, is a big diplomatic event of the year. And looks like it is going to be a mega affair. Here is why: All 54 heads of government, including South African President Jacob Zuma, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe have been invited and more than 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the meet. On display will be Indian hospitality and the country’s achievements in sectors like green technology, energy, skill building, health and education. There would be yoga and perhaps Bollywood. An exhibition featuring Mahatma Gandhi’s links with Africa will also be on view. While all this is fine, the key question is: Would the summit serve India’s economic interests in Africa, a massive emerging market?

Even as the government prepares for the summit, it must keep in mind the fact that Africa and Africans have changed in the last 20 years. The continent today has some of the fastest-growing nations in the world: Ethiopia is building a rapid transit system in Addis Ababa and a dam on the Blue Nile. It is proud to be a country that has never been colonised. Rwanda is a well-run modern State today. In India, we talk about Swachh Bharat as our new initiative. But Rwanda has been running such an initiative — Umuganda Day — for many years. The Umuganda Day is the last Saturday of every month when every Rwandan participates in cleaning the area where they live. Rwanda is spotless.

There is emerging prosperity also. If you happen to drive around on a Sunday in the capital city of Gaborone in Botswana, don’t be surprised to spot a Rolls Royce. Mercedes Benz, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, Renault and Volkswagen have car-manufacturing plants in South Africa. Kenya is emerging as a major IT support provider. Zimbabwe has around 90% literacy. Mobile services all over sub-Saharan Africa are currently of higher quality than in India. In some cases, they are better in ease of doing business too.

So when India holds the summit, it must not been seen as patronising, and it must not treat all 54 African countries alike.

The summit’s organisers should be to break up the delegations into groups according to their needs and interests, as was done by Japan during the 2013 Japan-Africa summit in Yokohama.

For example, there could be a group of resource-rich landlocked countries; low median-age populous countries; post-conflict nations; nations with major agriculture and floriculture potential; and countries with special infrastructure requirements. This will bring focus on projects of common interest and get the Indian private sector involved.

The priority areas for eastern and southern Africa would be infrastructure, farming, manufacturing and tourism. More competitive handling of extracted resources would be a priority for West Africa. Improving the efficiency of access to ports for land-locked states will be well received. Providing high-value services over the Internet would of interest as well.

To continue to talk about training programmes will not be worthwhile anymore. Africans today use concrete inputs from countries such as China. To establish its seriousness about the continent, it will be useful for India to circulate a paper on the outcome of the $10 billion or so that had been earmarked at earlier engagements for Indian private sector-led infrastructure and development projects in Africa. What is the progress in getting oil from South Sudan, or mining potash in Eritrea?

The importance of participation of the Indian private sector at the summit cannot be over-stressed. In the 2013 Japan-Africa summit, it was the Japanese private sector that played the major role in the trade and economic discussions. Also, to eliminate summit biases the Ethiopian leader Hailemariam Desalegn was designated chairman of that summit.

A sharp economic focus is what is required in the Third India-Africa Summit; countries need to be engaged, depending on their interests. The Indian private sector must take a leading role; a complete schedule of meetings with the private sector with names of participants, proposed projects and topics needs to be circulated in advance of the summit so that the participants can come prepared to maximise the benefit of such a crucial meet.

Amitava Chaudhuri is adviser to the United Nations and World Bank. The views expressed are personal.

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