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Books written by B G Verghese

Capacity building and grassroots development are both important, including gender budgeting as African women perform a greater role in farm operations than do women in Asia or Latin America.

Africa: Neighbour Across the Ocean

The First Indo-African Forum Summit is a welcome initiative that lays the foundation for an important new strategic and economic partnership.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald/Tribune, 14 April, 2008

The First Indo-African Forum Summit convened by Dr Manmohan Singh earlier this month was a truly welcome initiative that lays the foundation for an important new strategic and economic partnership. The 53 states of Africa constitute a sixth of the world’s population and a quarter of the United Nations’ membership. Neither factor can be ignored if India wishes to play the role it aspires to on the world stage as an emerging power. In so doing it is not seeking to compete with China or anybody else but to establish its credentials as a credible partner in the resurgence and development of Africa, a plundered and neglected continent.

All the more regrettable that the Forum Summit, attended by 14 heads of state and other senior African leaders, was treated as something of a side show by the media and political elite. Coverage was minimal and a great opportunity lost to educate the people about the import and significance of the meeting. Here were heads of African regional groupings who could have enlightened readers and viewers of nascent trends towards attaining the new goals Africans have set for themselves as this Continent awakens. Instead, we were treated to more moronic hype on cricket irrelevancies, low-order political backchat and the foibles of movie hams that so fill our newscape. 

Some important announcements were made. The Prime Minister announced a vast increment in market access through a duty free tariff preference scheme covering at least 50 LDCs, 34 of them from Africa. These will cover almost 95 per cent of India’s tariff lines and over 92 per cent of global LDC exports. This is therefore a very substantive concession that should stimulate both indigenous production and exports. Facilitating this will be an enhancement of India’s five year line of credit of $2.15 billion commencing 2003-04 to $ 5.4 billion over the next five years. This will be distributed both bilaterally as well as through newly forged regional economic communities. This is important as Africa has realized that its balkanized markets are an impediment to growth and that regional consolidation is essential through connectivity, infrastructure development, skill formation and exploitation of scale. Additionally a sum of $ 500 million is being allocated to enhance India’s Aid to Africa budget in the form of project grants.

Capacity building and grassroots development are both important, including gender budgeting as African women perform a greater role in farm operations than do women in Asia or Latin America. To this end, emphasis is being placed on little and medium enterprises, micro-credit, small farms and capacity building, with a doubling of Indian scholarships at all levels and augmenting its technical training slots. An imaginative new programme planned relates to a proposed India-Africa Volunteer Corps that should provide a wonderful new opportunity for Indian and African youth to work together in development programmes on both sides of the Ocean. Nothing could be better calculated to spark interest, friendships and imagination that this initiative.

However, none of this will work effectively without a considerable strengthening of the Africa desk in MEA and other relevant ministries, especially Commerce, and the establishment of a broad-based Indo-African Council embracing many disciplines, institutions and NGOs. The establishment of Departments of African Studies in select Universities and the encouragement of greater African news coverage by the Indian media in different regions of Africa should also be on the agenda.

The Delhi Declaration issued at the end of the Forum Summit pledged to develop within a year a joint plan of action at a continental level and an appropriate follow up mechanism to implement the Framework for Cooperation. Momentum should not be lost. It has been resolved to hold the second India-African Forum Summit in Africa in 2011 and there is much than can tangibly happen on the ground before that deadline.   

Corporate India can be expected to show growing interest in this venture. Africa is an emerging market and is a continent hugely endowed with rich mineral and other natural resources including hydrocarbons, coal, uranium, diamonds and much else besides. Joint ventures and mining leases offer prospects and could carry with them dynamic new concepts of corporate social responsibility as India must give as much and even more than  its takes from Africa. Indians and certain communities – Gujaratis, Sindhis, Tamils and Goans among others - have long been familiar with Africa and there is an important Indian diaspora spread across the continent.

Africa is where Gandhiji first learnt and practiced satyagraha. The Forum Summit recalled this and committed both sides to working for reform of the UN and Bretton Woods systems in keeping with changing ground realities, assuring both India and Africa a permanent seat in a restructured Security Council and working to strengthen the role of the General Assembly. It also pledged to work for comprehensive and universal disarmament, and cooperate in fighting terrorism and in combating the menace of climate change. 

There is reason for quiet satisfaction at the outcome of the First India-Africa Forum. The task is well begun; but there is a lot of hard work ahead.

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