Interview: Professor Renu Modi on India-Africa partnerships

IUKDPF’s Research Consultant, Supriya Roychoudhury, interviews Dr. Renu Modi, Professor and Director of the Centre for African Studies, University of Mumbai, and research partner of the IUKDPF. Dr. Modi has over two decades of experience in teaching, and has conducted research across a number of areas including agriculture and food security in Africa, South-South Development Cooperation, BRICS and bilateral, South-South mobilities, the sociology of the Indian Diaspora, and the human rights of immigrants.

SR: Let me begin by asking what you think have been some key milestones in the India-Africa development partnership in recent years?

Dr. Renu Modi

RM: Focussing on projects that work has been an important development in the partnership. I’d say 2015 was the first time the Government of India (GOI) did some real soul searching on where it wanted to take this partnership. This was just before the India Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) took place. Questions were being raised in parliament about the status of India’s projects in Africa. Several projects had failed to gain traction or move ahead for one reason or the other: bureaucratic differences of opinion, challenging business environments in partner countries, and so on. 

I’ll give you an example. In 2008, I’d visited Tanzania to meet colleagues for a project I was conducting on the India-Africa health partnership. A leading private sector Indian hospital was to set up a base there, with state of the art equipment and improved care cancer facilities. But when I returned in 2018, the hospital still hadn’t taken shape. I was told that one of the reasons was due to a disagreement over the allocation of land for the hospital.  The Indian hospital naturally wanted it to be closer to the city, in and around Dar es Salaam, but the potential site for the hospital was further away, and the Indian side did not think this was viable. The project didn’t take off. Of course, many other projects did succeed and took off with relative ease: vocational training institutes and ICT centers in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, and Egypt. Other examples include Apollo Hospitals’ partnership with Bramwell in Mauritius or the establishment of a chain of Agarwal Eye hospitals in Mozambique. So local facilitation works and is important.

But speedy project implementation was definitely an issue. So in 2015 – and I’d commend Prime Minister Modi for doing this – the Government of India decided to take stock of its LOCs (Lines of Credit) and development partnerships with Africa. It was agreed that those projects for which commitments had been pledged in 2008, but which had struggled to take off, would be discontinued. Only programmes that had done well, or had real potential – such as the Cotton Technical Assistance Programme (C-TAP) or the Pan Africa e- Network – would proceed into the second phase. 

What is interesting is that even though the Government of India continued to pledge support to the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference, it did not shy away from reviewing progress and making tough choices about which projects to continue supporting. We are definitely trying to become more accountable in our partnerships with Africa. This is partly due to the current financial crunch and our limited financial capabilities. We’re trying to be more judicious in how we spend our resources. 

“We are definitely trying to become more accountable in our partnerships with Africa… We’re trying to be more judicious in how we spend our resources.” 

SR: If we’re observing a move towards greater accountability in the partnership, are we also seeing increased appetite to quantify and measure this assistance? 

RM: Monitoring and evaluation of Indian development partnerships continues to be a strict no-no for both the Government of India and the EXIM Bank. So yes, even as there appears to be greater interest in creating accountability in the partnership, we are yet to invest in processes and systems that will allow us to better quantify and track the assistance we give. At present, the onus of how the Lines of Credit are used is on the borrowing government. We continue to invoke the principle of non-interference as a justification to not advance this debate on measurement. At the moment, the categories of assistance are blurred, and the totals don’t always add up – you only get a sense of the numbers. As a researcher, it makes my job incredibly challenging.

SR: The first-ever India-Africa Defence Ministers’ Conclave was held in Lucknow in February of this year. How does the securitisation of this partnership square with India and Africa’s shared commitment to Agenda 2063, or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

RM: As scholars in the 80s, the Non-Aligned Movement meant a lot to us personally. We were witness to many of its landmark moments; I still remember the roadblocks in New Delhi ahead of the NAM Summit. The discourse of the India-Africa partnership was very much about internationalism, solidarity, Gandhian satyagraha, South-South development cooperation. It was overwhelmingly about peace, development, and peace-building. For those of us who belonged to this generation, this defence conclave came as a bit of a surprise.

India-Africa Defence Ministers’ Conclave in February, 2020

Of course this isn’t to say that India has not been partnering with Africa on peace enforcement. It has, for many decades now, including through military training offered via ITEC, for example. It’s also been a major Troop Contributing Country (TCC), the third largest, after Bangladesh and Pakistan. And just last year, contingents from 17 African countries were invited to take part in the India-Africa joint field training exercise (AFINDEX-19) – a field training exercise in disaster risk reduction, humanitarian mine assistance, peacekeeping, casualty evacuation, sharing best practices and so on.

But the first-ever Defence Expo held in Lucknow in 2020 was extraordinary in who it brought together and what it did. It was organised by the Indian Ministry of Defence. Both Rajnath Singh, the Defence Minister, and Bipin Rawat, the Chief of Army Staff, participated, as did fourteen African Defence ministers – including many from strategic African littoral states currently engaged in the SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) initiative, and representatives from strategic countries like Ethiopia, where India has set up a Defence Training Centre and where it has sizeable investments. The expo allowed India to showcase and make available its military hardware and digital defence systems and capabilities to African partners. This was different from the kind of military cooperation we’ve been used to engaging in with our African partners until now – which has mainly been limited to field training, peacekeeping, disaster relief, and so on. The official discourse, though, is that this kind of cooperation will further the AU’s peace-building goals and ‘Silencing the Gun’ vision. It promotes this idea that in supporting African partners on counter-terrorism (antipiracy, securing sea lanes), humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief, India is essentially laying down the foundation for peace more generally and is creating an open and conducive environment for business as well. I also see this growing securitisation as part of a larger context in which India is trying to play catch up with China’s increased presence through various projects in Africa and the Indian Ocean. If our African partners need to procure military hardware for common peace and security concerns, India is ready to be a reliable supplier.

“I see this growing securitisation as part of a larger context in which India is trying to play catch up with China’s increased presence through various projects in Africa and the Indian Ocean.”

SR: The Ministry of External Affairs recently set up a separate wing within the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) devoted to cultural cooperation and cultural diplomacy. What is your understanding of the unique role that Indian culture, heritage and identity play in India’s development partnerships?

RM: Civilisational exceptionalism has become the language of our diplomacy. If you go through the Facebook pages of the Indian High Commissions across Africa, they are filled with mentions of Gandhi commemorations and yoga day announcements. The High Commissions are putting in a lot of effort into showcasing this civilisational exceptionalism. In Senegal, where I last visited last (pre-Covid), the High Commission had organised a Khadi exhibition, and had also unveiled a statue of Gandhi. Initiatives such as these also show us how Gandhian ideals of peace and non-violence have strong local support. At the same time, we have seen how anti-Gandhi protest movements have taken place in some countries – based on this idea that Gandhi was a racist – which I personally think represents only a partial understanding of him. We’ve also seen how India is trying to project this civilisational identity through the re-naming of various projects: the Pan Africa E-Network, for instance, is now known as the e-Vidya Bharati and e-Arogya Bharati (e-VBAB) Network Project. The SAGAR initiative, for example, is couched in the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbukum – peace and security for all. These are all efforts to ‘Indianise’ our development projects and ideas.

SR: Your scholarship has delved into various dimensions of the Indian diaspora settled in Africa. Could you tell us a little bit about India’s diaspora engagement strategy? What is the GOI’s rationale behind engaging this community as bridge-builders? And what might the limitations and challenges be in embarking on such a strategy?

RM: India has left no stone unturned when it comes to wooing the Indian diaspora overseas, including in Africa. It has put into place several schemes to expand this outreach – for instance the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas to honour the contributions by Indian diasporic communities, or the unique initiative ‘Tracing the Roots’, launched by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, way back in 2008 to help the Indian diaspora trace their roots back to India. The Indian diaspora in Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Suriname, and Mauritius have successfully managed to trace their forefathers’ families to Bihar. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh also offer what is known as ‘root tourism’ for these Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs). In Mauritius, Indian Immigration Archives at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute (MGI) contains the original records of Indian indentured labourers – the Girmitiyas – who came to Mauritius about 190 years ago. When the Girmitiyas arrived, they were given an identification tag with a number. This identification number, when matched with the original records located in the MGI archives, reveals data about village the labourer came from, the name of his recruiter etc.

These initiatives are certainly notable. But the Government of India does not differentiate amongst the diasporas in Africa, which we as diasporic studies scholars, make a point to do. The GOI seems to be fixated on an older understanding of the diaspora – one of longing for the homeland. For the GOI, the arc of Indianness extends well beyond the borders of the nation state.

But the concept of diaspora has evolved.  So while people of Indian origin in Africa – the old diaspora who are well into their fifth and sixth generation – may wish to maintain their cultural links to India, they may not want to identify as ‘Indians’. Doing so might actually create resentment the countries in which their families have been living for generations. In the 1970s, for instance, their political loyalties were questioned by Idi Amin in Uganda, ultimately leading to their mass expulsion. Africans of Indian origin claim and affirm their hyphenated identities – as South-African Indians, or Kenyan-Indians – but the Government of India doesn’t always recognise this. Although many Africans of Indian origin have never visited India, their cultural links to India remain robust – through the many programmes on Lotus TV or Aastha Channel; images of Baba Ramdev doing yoga frequently making their way into their homes!

Expulsion of Indian expats from Uganda in 1972

What the Government of India wants is for the Indian diaspora to invest in India. This is not to say that this is not already happening.  Many businesspersons of Indian-origin based in East Africa have, for example, diversified their capital and businesses. They have set up tea-estates and cement factories in India and partnered with Indian companies in Africa. But today, India is only one of the countries in which they invest or diversify. Their experience in Uganda (when Indians were expelled in 1972) burnt their fingers. It made them understand the importance of setting up their operations in different places – whether in Europe, the UK, the US, etc. Many family-run businesses did just this.

SR: To what extent do you feel that India’s development partnerships address the needs of women in a targeted, deliberate, and systematic way? I’m also interested to hear your views about whether and how the inclusion of women in decision-making processes might result in a more gender-sensitive approach to development cooperation.

RM: While travelling across Africa – landscapes that are so similar to India’s and which feel so familiar – you often see women with children wrapped around them as they bend downwards to cut grass or sow seeds in agricultural fields. We export tractors. But a bulk of the farmers are smallholders, and a majority of them are women. It makes me think: could we not develop some sort of technology to make it easier for women to these farming activities while standing up? We as a nation are capable of so many things – we are a country of jugaad – of frugal, adaptable and affordable technologies. It makes me wonder about the possibilities for developing innovative, simple and cheap solutions that work for women.

Of course we’ve had programmes that are aimed at women’s empowerment: the Solar Mamas programme, and women training under SEWA are just two examples. I once interviewed a Solar Mama from Sierra Leone. You could see how proud she was to have helped educate other the women in her village on solar electrification. Through their efforts, the streets in their villages were lit up, they could charge their phones, their children could study under lamps.

Renu Modi’s research for the IUKDPF will examine the work of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) towards empowerment in Africa. See more here.

If you look at the budgets for these kinds of programmes, you’ll find that they aren’t particularly impressive. These allocations reveal a certain gender peripherality in our development partnerships. There is potential for these programmes to be scaled up.

On the issue of having women occupy key decision-making portfolios in the Ministry of External Affairs, we’ve had women serve within the DPA, at the Africa desks within the MEA, and within the Indian missions in Africa. The MEA has several women officers. But I don’t think you need to be a woman to introduce a gender-sensitivity lens.

SR: We often hear about the ways in which India can and should be exporting its best practices and innovations to African partners. But South-South learning, as we know, is a two-way process. I am curious to hear your views on the potential for India to adapt, contextualise African developmental experiences, models and innovations. What might those be? 

RM: I’ll give you just two illustrative examples. In Senegal, the relation between the state and the religious groups is underscored by ideas of ‘rituals of respect’, or a policy of cooperation where the state does not interfere in religious affairs.  The public practice of ‘rituals of respect’ has furthered good relations between different groups and with the state, it’s a kind of accommodative politics. Respect for diversity – for multiple ethnic and religious denominations – is what India strives for and works towards as well, so perhaps Senegal could offer some inspiration. The second example I’d point to is the African response to Covid-19. African states have done relatively well, despite initial projections. I’ve heard that in Senegal and Tanzania, regular classes have been proceeding as usual for the past few months. Students of course have to wear masks when they enter the classroom. Social distancing is observed. In some cases, blended teaching is offered. Several countries have low positivity and fatality rates. Burundi and Botswana have less than 0.2 % fatality, and Seychelles and Eritrea have zero fatalities! Of course, many countries have a young population and low population density. But there is perhaps something to be said about what they are doing differently. During COVID-19, for instance, African nations activated the networks and infrastructures they had put into place earlier for the management of Ebola. What can India take away from these experiences? These are possibilities that remain untapped and could be explored.