Expert Speak India with Africa
Published on Apr 28, 2021
Elevating the Indo-African partnership: A post-COVID outlook

The recently-concluded 2021 edition of the Raisina Dialogue ran the gamut from security to development issues, but arguably, the resounding theme animating the Dialogue was the increasing power and potential of international partnerships. In a world characterised by growing interdependence and fraying multilateralism, partnerships amongst like-minded countries shall be powerful instruments for building back better after the COVID-19 pandemic. Some key insights for the India-Africa partnership are explored here, inspired by the Raisina Dialogue, while also discussing what a forward-looking engagement for the longstanding partners could look like.

The pandemic has raised the stakes for global development partnerships as inequalities within and between countries widen, even as its universally malign impact has spurred nationalism and significant cuts to foreign aid programmes. India’s prompt outreach in the form of vaccine supply, medical consignments, financial contribution to multilateral initiatives such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI) alliance, food aid and the e-ITEC COVID-19 training webinars have demonstrated its seriousness of intent and steadfast commitment towards elevating its partnership with African nations.

Strengthening the partnership: How India’s role must evolve 

  1. India’s normative and material strength in this partnership has derived from its emphasis on demand-driven and people-to-people partnerships. With the pandemic having shorn India’s resources considerably as well, effectiveness will mean listening to its partners’ needs properly, and to conceive projects in alignment with African nations’ strategies for structural transformation. Interventions that take place in a political economy vacuum will fail to have the scale of transformative effect that the continent needs now, and will also be a waste of scarce resources. Dr Barnaby Dye’s analysis has shown how India’s change in Line of Credit (LoC) policy in 2015 meant to increase effectiveness, has served to reduce the autonomy of recipients over projects. Sectoral priorities for the LoC are now increasingly being projected by the Indian government, a departure from India’s norms of demand-driven, non-interventionist South-South cooperation. According to Dr Dye, this has lowered the uptake of LoCs in Africa since 2015.
  1. Africa is looking for partners that support its efforts towards building industrial competitiveness, technological capabilities and pathways for inclusive development. A recent paper has shown how India can sharpen its competitive advantage by initiating its own global value chains, and bring in suppliers from competitive partners in the global South—for instance, the paper identifies leather and dyes as two products for which India can source inputs more competitively from African countries. This would be a win-win initiative, in helping African suppliers link in to global value chains’ (GVCs) while making Indian exports more competitive as well. Dr Mohan Kumar has also put forth a suggestion to leverage India’s advantage as a partner to help build manufacturing capabilities in pharmaceuticals and medical devices in Africa.

Innovation shall be at the heart of the continent’s recovery from the pandemic, and the Raisina Dialogue highlighted a number of areas where India could contribute in a more meaningful way. India can accelerate its role in bridging the digital divide through digital skilling initiatives (it’s initiative for training Kenyan women called “#SheGoesDigital” has been particularly well-received) and its pan-African e-network project. India also has the wherewithal to create value-addition in agriculture through initiatives like Supporting Indian Trade and Investment for Africa (SITA) which promote technology transfer and capacity-building, and investment support for agro-industry. Africa needs reliable energy infrastructure to power it’s post-COVID recovery and growth trajectory. As the developed world withdraws support for fossil-fuel projects abroad, India could contribute to Africa’s transition through enabling diffusion of clean technologies, building capabilities to support just transitions through institutions such as the Barefoot College, and sharing its experiences as a fellow developing country, endeavouring towards a green transition itself.

  1. The discussions and publications that emerged from the conference have, in particular, contributed some critical insights into partnerships powered by the vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. Significantly, the Indian, Japanese, and French conceptions of the Indo-Pacific extend to the East African seaboard, and African nations make up 40 percent of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). In Africa, the Indo-Pacific framing is expected to bring in a greater number of partners and spur diverse trilateral and multilateral partnerships seeking to deepen engagement with the continent. There has already been a beginning in this regard—albeit understated—with the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), which has created a framework for the Indo-Japanese partnership in Africa. Momentum on the AAGC has been slow so far—the triangular partnership has tremendous unharnessed potential to create incentives and a collaborative framework for the Indian and Japanese private sectors to build on each other’s complementary strengths and work for economic transformation in the continent.
  1. India’s greatest strengths in Africa are human resource development and capacity-building. A greater focus on gathering feedback and adaptive policymaking can strengthen India’s offering in this regard considerably. For instance, Malancha Chakraborty, a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), finds that the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development’s “Study in India” initiative has failed to perform satisfactorily and India is not perceived to be a preferable higher education destination for African students. The Indian establishment needs mechanisms to incorporate such feedback deftly and adapt its approach accordingly. India’s nodal institutions for implementation of projects and assessing and gathering feedback i.e its missions, are also its weakest link. Although India is expanding its missions in Africa, it needs to also bolster their institutional capacity, which is woefully inadequate at present. Moreover, missions and Indian think tanks that operate as the eyes and ears of the government in the space also need more engagement with civil society to gauge what works and what doesn’t, in order for the Indian government to be an effective development partner. A focus on people-to-people partnership necessarily implies active interaction with civil society, a greater awareness of and engagement with Africanist scholarship and efforts to foster positive public attitudes towards the partnership. Issues like racist attacks on African students in India does Indian diplomacy a great disservice.
  1. The Indian development establishment also needs to expend more effort into streamlining its databases. India’s data on development partnerships is notoriously patchy and fragmented, and interviews with Indian diplomats suggest that navigating them is costly and difficult, not only for researchers and countries wanting to partner with India but also for the Indian government itself.

COVID-19 has crystallised developmental priorities and has provided an opportunity to galvanise and strengthen the Indo-African partnership further. Working towards this end can help fuel a robust and sustainable post-COVID recovery for these two regions.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Sangeet Jain

Sangeet Jain

Sangeet Jain was Junior Fellow at ORF. Her research focus is on employment and the future of work

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