Author : Swati Prabhu

Issue BriefsPublished on Oct 04, 2021 PDF Download
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The Sustainability Thread in India’s Development Partnerships

This brief analyses the alignment between India’s development partnerships since Independence, and sustainability goals. It conducts the examination using three phases of India’s development partnerships—i.e., Phase 1, 1947-1990; Phase 2, 1991-2008; and Phase 3, post-2008—and finds that the country’s development cooperation agenda has historically incorporated objectives of sustainable growth. This pattern would continue throughout the different phases of its development partnerships, all the way to the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) beginning in 2015. The brief explores the key trends in India’s development partnerships in the remaining ten years for the international community to work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030.


Swati Prabhu, “The Sustainability Thread in India’s Development Partnerships,” ORF Issue Brief No. 496, October 2021, Observer Research Foundation.


There is less than a decade left before the deadline set by the international community for itself to make the world a better place and achieve the 17 Goals and 169 targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs aim to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity” by 2030.[1] Since the UN General Assembly adopted the SDGs in 2015, much of the world is lagging in many of the goals and there is an urgent need to mobilise resources and enhance implementation. In this context, India is emerging as a potential game-changer in the international development cooperation efforts, not only because its population is a massive 17 percent of the world’s, but given that it is a key development partner to many countries, especially in the South Asian region. Indeed, its development cooperation engagements[a] in recent years have leveraged its position in the broader development cooperation narrative. India institutionalised its development cooperation in 2012 by creating the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) under the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

This brief evaluates India’s development partnerships and weighs them against the theme of sustainability. The objective is not to provide a description of the development cooperation initiatives per se; there is sufficient existing literature in this regard (among them, Sachin Chaturvedi, T. Fues and E. Sidiropoulos, 2012; Urvashi Aneja, 2015; Kashyap Arora and Rani D Mullen, 2017; Gareth Price, 2013; and Vijaya Katti, Tatjana Chahoud and Atul Kaushik, 2009). Rather it is to identify a co-relation between India’s development partnerships and objectives of sustainability. To pursue this enquiry, the brief examines India’s development partnerships in three phases (Phase I, 1947-1990; Phase II, 1991-2008; and Phase III, post-2008). It then ponders the most fundamental imperatives for India’s DPA in the run-up to the Agenda 2030 deadline.

India’s Development Cooperation: A Brief History

2.1 Phase I (1947-1990)

India’s efforts to build effective partnerships with developing countries—both in its immediate neighbourhood and beyond, such as in Africa—can be traced to the British colonial era.[2] After 1947, India and other newly independent nations gathered in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 and declared a set of ‘Bandung Principles’. These principles of political self-determination, mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, and equality served as the pillars of India’s foreign policy, which in turn guided the country’s development cooperation. This was further given an impetus through the broader South-South Cooperation (SSC) structure facilitating cooperation in cases of conflict of ideas, differences in development, and other related issues.

During this period, a prominent feature of New Delhi’s development cooperation came in the form of the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme, Special Commonwealth Assistance Programme for Africa (SCAPA), and bilateral aid to other developing countries. Its initial footprints could be traced through the cultural fellowships launched by the MEA in 1949 to foster goodwill and friendly ties with fellow developing countries.

In 1954 the Indian Aid Mission was created in Kathmandu, later renamed Indian Cooperation Mission (ICM), to manage and coordinate India’s development projects in Nepal. Other partners at the time included the neighbouring countries of Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, encompassing various sectors such as infrastructure, capacity-building, and technical training. (See Table 1)

Table 1: India’s Development Cooperation in South Asia and Africa (1947-1990)

Source: Author’s own, using various sources

2.2 Phase II (1991-2008)

Following the economic reforms of the 1990s, there were paradigmatic shifts in India’s security and foreign policy aspirations, which in turn were reflected in its development cooperation. During this period, India’s assistance strategy was heavily influenced by both economic considerations—such as gaining access to markets and raw material—and strategic ones as well (i.e., strengthening relations with other developing countries, for example, to procure support for India’s bid to gain a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.) Globally, countries were taking cognisance of the need to incorporate environmental factors in economic goals.[3] These included the issues of protecting indigenous knowledge, as well as intellectual property rights.

In 2000, the world committed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).[b] This declaration is widely regarded as a catalyst for development cooperation in a global scale.  Indeed, the MDGs helped streamline official development assistance (ODA).

For India, a highlight of this second phase was the introduction of the second stage of the LOC programme in 2003-04 through the Export Import Bank of India (EXIM), thereby substantially widening the reach of New Delhi’s development cooperation. Earlier formulated as Indian Development Initiative (IDI) and later renamed Indian Development and Economic Assistance Scheme (IDEAS), LOCs are extended as loans on the recommendation of the MEA to the developing countries. They were initially limited to African and Asian countries and amounted to US$ 215.36 million, with a sectoral focus on rural electrification, railway rehabilitation, and hydropower projects. (See Table 2 for the LOCs extended by India to the African region from 2003 to 2007 and Table 3 for South Asia.)

Table 2: LOCs Extended by India to Africa (2003-2007)

Source: EXIM Bank, Lines of Credit Statistics

Table 3: LOCs extended by India to South Asia (2004-2008)

Source: EXIM Bank, Lines of Credit Statistics

During this period, New Delhi also engaged in different sectors with other immediate neighbours. In Afghanistan, following the Taliban exit in 2001, India began collaborating with the Northern Alliance in its quest for sustaining democracy and peace. India joined Kabul’s School Feeding Programme in 2003 by converting one million tonnes of wheat into high-protein biscuits for distribution in schools, in collaboration with the World Food Programme (WFP). Healthcare and medical facilities is another important sector where Indian development initiatives found its presence around 2001. For instance, medical camps were set up for fixing artificial limbs for Afghans who suffered during the conflict. Moreover, as part of the Small Development Project Scheme, India facilitated the establishment of basic health clinics in various areas such as Badakshan, Balkh, Kandahar, Khost, Kunar, Nangarhar, Nimroz, Nooristan, Paktia and Paktika. In the sector of power and transmission, in 2004, New Delhi initiated the construction of the Salma Dam Power Project on the river Hari Rud in the province of Herat. It promised a generation of 42 MW electricity and also an irrigation capacity of 40,000 hectares.

In the subsequent years, Indian development cooperation gradually broadened its overseas influence by reaching out to Latin America and also the Pacific island nation, Fiji. Table 4 provides a summary of the LOCs offered by India during 2003-08 in various sectors to Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania. Table 5 lists the capacity building programmes introduced by India from 2003 to 2008. The last column of Table 4 refers to the relevant Sustainable Development Goals, as they have been institutionalised by the international community in 2015, that reflect the aims of these earlier LOCs. (See Annex for a complete list of the SDGs.) This illustrates that indeed, historically, India’s development partnerships have hewed to sustainability aims. That today, looking back, one can see that India’s development partnerships over the years have been organically following the aims of sustainability.

Table 4: Summary of LOCs extended by India (2003-04)

Source: Author’s own, data derived from the Exim Bank Lines of Credit Statistics

Table 5: Capacity-building programmes by India in Africa (2003-2008)

Source: Author’s own, data collected from Ministry of External Affairs

2.3 Phase III (Post-2008)

The 2007 financial crisis had cascading impacts on the international development aid landscape; it resulted in cuts in the aid budgets to regions like Africa and Asia. For India, analysts aver that the economic reforms during the previous phase allowed the country to escape, albeit narrowly, the fallout of the global recession. In 2008, the Indian development cooperation, then known as India International Development Cooperation Agency (IIDCA), deepened its engagement with Africa through the India-Africa Forum Summit by committing to double its existing LOCs towards infrastructural development programmes, agricultural productivity, IT, energy, and rural electrification.[4] The sustainability narrative was steadily gaining more ground at this time. In 2012, as mentioned earlier, India established the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) under the MEA, thereby institutionalising its development partnerships abroad. (See Table 6).

Table 6: Key Strands of Indian DPA, Sectoral focus, and SDG Ambitions

Source: Author’s own, using the MEA dashboard

At present, India’s DPA gives focus to regional connectivity in its bilateral engagements in the immediate neighbourhood.[5] Table 7 lists New Delhi’s development initiatives with a sectoral focus in its neighbourhood.

Table 7: India’s Development Cooperation in its Neighbourhood (2008-present)

Source: Author’s own, using data from Ministry of External Affairs

Indian development partnerships, apart from the bilateral initiatives, are also present in a number of multilateral forums. Although multilateralism has been declining in the past few years, collaboration remains pivotal in the run-up to Agenda 2030. As part of various multilateral forums under the wider SSC umbrella, India is setting up alternative modes and avenues of mobilising finance as opposed to the OECD-DAC structure (see Table 8).[6]

Table 8: India’s Development Initiatives on Global Platforms

Source: Author’s own, using official websites of ISA, CDRI, IBSA, BRICS and the UN

In order to keep up with the surge in development cooperation demand from the developing countries owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, India stepped up its humanitarian assistance under ‘Vaccine Maitri’ by sending COVID-related medical kits, PPE suits, vaccines, and other medicines to its neighbours in South Asia.[7] This falls in line with the SDG 3 ambition. Furthermore, in its bid to handle the pandemic, it utilised e-ITEC programmes to share technical expertise and knowledge (SDG 17) with other developing countries.[8] On the cultural front, New Delhi has “completed more than 50 projects” involving the restoration of several old temples, religious structures and relics belonging to different South Asian countries.[9]  This particularly falls in line with target 4 of SDG 11.

To better understand the change in stances adopted by the Indian development partnerships across the various phases, Table 9 gives a timeline marking the reflection of the SDG ambitions across the three phases in India’s development cooperation. The point is that, historically, India’s development partnerships have been aligned with themes of sustainability. These objectives were eventually institutionalised, first, as the MDGs and later, as the SDGs.

Table 9: The alignment of India’s development partnerships and Sustainability

Source: Author’s own
Current Trends

In the short term, New Delhi must look out for six crucial trends in its development partnerships, keeping in mind the sustainability goalposts.

3.1 Institutionalising SDGs as a separate vertical in the DPA

The Indian DPA has failed to give adequate space to the SDGs in its institutional structure. Even as India’s development partnerships, as shown in this brief, have historically fallen naturally within the ambit of the SDGs, most of the projects are undertaken on the basis of demand; still not as an SDG policy drive. It is time to reorganise the DPA to meet the demands of the current ‘Decade of Action’.

3.2 Preparing a specialised cadre on the SDGs

Institutionalising the SDGs as a separate vertical under the DPA would be incomplete without the right personnel. A core group must be set up to work on interweaving the development partnership activities and the 17 SDGs. This specialised cadre would also facilitate the assessment of foreign policy drivers connected to achieving ecological equity as well as setting up the institutional fibre, as a whole.

3.3 Conducting Impact Assessments of partnerships

Stocktaking is a vital step in institutionalising effective and formidable development partnerships. This has been one of the DPA’s weaknesses in the past nine years. Establishing a separate ministry or an institutional agency dedicated to India’s development partnerships should be considered, keeping in mind the long-drawn sustainability targets.

3.4 Pushing the envelope on robust multilateralism

Trade-offs between domestic interests and international strategic gains influence not only India’s foreign policy formulations but also its development cooperation. As multilateral forums fall under the scanner for their failings, India is exploring other modes of bilateral and minilateral engagements such as BRICS.[10]  This is not to say that the UN is to be ignored by New Delhi. Efforts should be made towards strategic confidence-building with other partners and traditional donors to rally support around the SDGs in the UN. After all, the sustainability agenda is equally vital for both developed and developing nations, especially in the COVID-19 era.

3.5 Comprehending the ‘China Challenge’

The volume of Chinese aid is substantially increasing in many parts of the world, in particular through the country’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In the Indo-Pacific, Indian and Chinese interests intersect: both countries are seeking to expand their footprints through projects on disaster risk resilience, renewable energy, and agriculture, among others.

3.6 Three Key SDGs: 13, 14, and 15

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that all 17 of the SDGs command adequate attention from the international community. The paradigmatic shifts in development caused by the pandemic requires India’s development partnerships policymakers to reform the institutional structure of the DPA.  There are three SDGs that Indian DPA needs to consider especially, so as to “future proof sustainable recovery and sustainable development” in the coming few years.[11] Climate Action (SDG 13) initiatives have far-reaching consequences on the overall development partnerships. As South Asia has historically been vulnerable to the manifold consequences of natural disasters, India’s model of development cooperation has to be grounded in this SDG target. Life on Land (SDG 15) and Life below Water (SDG 14) concern themselves with the vitality of safeguarding living organisms and their natural habitats. Disturbing and encroaching on the natural territories could possibly result in more frequent outbreaks of diseases; this is seen in COVID-19.[12] India’s farming, mining and housing initiatives in partner countries, for example, must focus on sustainable pathways.


India’s development partnerships over the past many decades have historically considered sustainability. More recently, since the UN member states adopted the SDGs, India has maintained such alignment between development partnerships and sustainability goals.

Following independence, New Delhi’s desire to extend support to other fellow developing countries was born out of a compulsion to secure its own position in the foreign policy landscape. At the time, India chose to engage in sharing technical expertise, knowledge, and capacity-building given how it was itself still struggling to find a path to economic growth. In the 1990s, economic reforms allowed India to pursue partnership initiatives. In the following decade, India undertook several projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, working in sectors that fall in line with the SDGs, including: agriculture (SDG 2), housing (SDG 11), health (SDG 3), irrigation (SDG 2), energy (SDG 7), and infrastructure (SDG 9 and 11). As observed, it has been an organic process rather than a policy-driven initiative.

In the coming years, India can potentially drive the SDG narrative, as some analysts have pointed out, by “providing solutions and weaving roadmaps for others.”[13]  If New Delhi can successfully reinvent its DPA priorities and marry them with the SDG Agenda, it would be possible to envision an “Indian model” of sustainability.


The Development Agenda 2030

Source: United Nations, 2015

About the Author

Swati Prabhu is Associate Fellow at ORF.


[a] This study uses the word ‘partnership’ and ‘cooperation’ interchangeably. However, the official terminology utilised by the Government of India is ‘partnership’, as seen in the nomenclature of the Development Partnership Administration (DPA).

[b] The MDGs are a set of eight goals that UN Member States agreed to achieve by 2015. They committed world leaders to combat poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women.

[1] UNDP, Sustainable Development Goals, 2015.

[2] Urvashi Aneja, Shifting Currents: India’s Rise as a Development Partner, UNU Centre for Policy Research, November 2015.

[3] M. Khor, “Challenges and Opportunities of a Green Economy”, UN Division for Sustainable Development, 2011.

[4] Vijaya Katti, Tatjana Chahoud and Atul Kaushik, “India’s Development Cooperation: Opportunities and Challenges for International Development Cooperation German Development Institute, March 2009.

[5] Government of India, Lines of Credit for Development Projects, Ministry of External Affairs.

[6] Sachin Chaturvedi, “India’s Development Partnership: Key Policy Shifts and Institutional Evolution”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 25, no.4, (2012): 557-577.

[7] Government of India, Vaccine Maitri, Ministry of External Affairs.

[8] Government of India, Humanitarian Assistance as Development Partnership, Ministry of External Affairs.

[9] Government of India, Cultural and Heritage Cooperation in Development Projects, Ministry of External Affairs.

[10] Shivshankar Menon, “Domestic Concerns still Shape India’s Foreign Policy”, East Asia Forum, September 15, 2020.

[11] UNEP, COVID-19: Four Sustainable Development Goals that Help Future-proof Global Recovery, May 26, 2020.

[12] UNEP, Science Points to Causes of COVID-19, Nature Action, May 22, 2020.

[13] Samir Saran, “India as a Leading Power: Shaping the Development Narrative at Home and Abroad”, Narendra Modi’s Website, April 7, 2017.

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Swati Prabhu

Swati Prabhu

Dr Swati Prabhu is Associate Fellow with theCentre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED). Her research explores the interlinkages between Indias development partnerships and the Sustainable ...

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