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Business News/ Opinion / India-Africa ties: Economics and Multilateralism

India-Africa ties: Economics and Multilateralism

If India is serious about its Africa initiative, a lot will depend on how it marshals its banking and financial sector there

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) with Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi during his four-nation tour of Africa in July 2016. Photo: AFPPremium
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) with Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi during his four-nation tour of Africa in July 2016. Photo: AFP

The Leaders’ Declaration from G20 this year comes with an added annexure. It is called the G20 Africa Partnership, included at the insistence of Germany, which has the G20 presidency for 2017 and is at liberty to set the multilateral grouping’s agenda for the year. The annexure states its purpose: “The Partnership intends to support related initiatives of the G20 and facilitate investment compacts between interested African countries, international organisations and interested partners to support private investment, sustainable infrastructure and employment in African countries."

Germany, as well as the European Union, have an abiding interest in Africa. The unrelenting waves of migration from North African shores (often leading to loss of lives while crossing the tempestuous Mediterranean Sea) and Europe’s volatile immigration politics are likely to have prompted Germany to rally the international community around Africa’s plight. Hence the partnership document focuses, among other things, on creating sustainable employment opportunities so that African youth do not risk lives in search of livelihood elsewhere.

Ironically, the G20 club includes only one African nation, South Africa. The Partnership document has its fair share of detractors, especially within African nations, and suspicions about its overwhelming reliance on private sector investment.

It also holds out three lessons for India.

The first relates to deeply embedded historical attitudes towards Africa. These rose to the surface again, perhaps unwittingly, while French President Emmanuel Macron was addressing a G20 press conference in Hamburg. Answering a question on why there was no Marshall Plan for Africa, Macron is believed to have said Africa had a different set of problems, which included “civilizational" problems. Some of the unique problems cited by Macron included failed states, complex democratic transitions and African women giving birth to seven-eight children. This predictably triggered a maelstrom of protests and diverted attention to Africa’s colonial past and France’s role in it. Macron’s statement was also viewed as reflecting Europe’s smug (and enduring) belief of civilizational superiority. Macron almost buried the partnership even before it had an opportunity to take off.

India must take note of this public relations disaster. The impact of government’s intensive outreach programmes has often been blunted by violent displays of racism against African students and citizens living in Indian cities. It is indeed an odd occurrence for India, which boasts of a long and shared history with Africa—especially cultural, social and trade ties. If at all, there is a felt need to accelerate the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (Itec) programme which provides capacity building for officials from low- income countries.

The second lesson arises from the G20’s internal contradictions and the possible impact on India. The document has a section on strengthening the framework for investments and private finance in Africa, in which the G20 welcomes other partners and “…complementary measures by the forthcoming EU External Investment Plan, the Forum of China Africa Cooperation, the Tokyo International Conference on African Development as well as others".

Herein lie the conflicts within the G20: China, Japan, Turkey and the US are all independently competing for a foothold in Africa, with each country aggressively courting nations and their heads of state. Germany and the European Union are joining the fray now. India also has its own India Africa Forum Summit, which has been re-energized and supplemented with state visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then president Pranab Mukherjee, vice-president Hamid Ansari and other senior ministers.

Given the multiplicity of competing interests, it has to be seen whether different countries will be willing to subsume their Africa ambitions under an over-arching multilateral approach. India will need to watch this effort closely. If required, India could consider activating the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), its joint initiative with Japan, through the G20 compact. The AAGC, which places significant emphasis on both infrastructure investment and capacity building, aligns well with the G20’s Africa approach.

The third point relates to the implicit assumptions behind private sector investments—that they will automatically generate more trade. Unfortunately, intra-Africa trade accounts for only 14% of Africa’s total trade. It is true that poor infrastructure slows down intra-Africa trade traffic, and therefore higher investments in road and rail infrastructure will surely help. The problem lies elsewhere—the lack of a trade facilitation culture and customs capacity which hinders cargo movement. India and Itec can definitely help here.

More importantly, there are other opportunities for India. Data from the African Development Bank shows only 31% of Africa’s trade is backed by bank-intermediated trade finance. This is clearly an opportunity for Indian banks. India’s banking presence in Africa seems to have lost its relevance over time: The geographical footprint is built around traditional Indian diaspora habitats in east and south Africa, and operations are tailored around ethnic banking services. Late in entering Africa, Chinese banks have already acquired stakes in leading banks. If India is serious about its Africa initiative, a lot will depend on how it marshals its banking and financial sector there.

Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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Published: 26 Jul 2017, 12:05 AM IST
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