The Harambee Factor

The Harambee Factor, authored by Gurjit Singh, must be compulsory reading for those in charge of policy in Africa & India.

Even as a child, Gurjit Singh had a passion for Africa. Fortunately, after getting into the Indian Foreign Service, he was posted to Africa. He served as ambassador to Kenya and Ethiopia and then as joint secretary heading the Africa Division. Ergo, he is exceptionally qualified to write on relations between Africa and India.

The title of his book is intriguing. Right at the beginning, the author provides an etymology. Harambee, a Swahili word meaning pulling together in a cooperative spirit, perhaps has an Indian origin. The Indians who laid the Mombasa Kisumu railway often used the terms Hari and Ambe together when picking heavy loads or rail tracks. Hari meant Lord Vishnu, and Ambe meant Goddess Shakthi.

There are 12 chapters in all. The first one, titled Knock Knock: The Opportunity that is Africa, explains the importance of Africa. The opening words are memorable:

"When a man is coming to you, you need not say ‘Come here’"

With a population of 1.2 billion, likely to rise to 2.5 billion by 2050, and a workforce of 705 million now, likely to be well over 1 billion in the next ten years, Africa can be a market worth $3.3 trillion. The Africa Continental Free Trade Area (Af CFTA) was established in 2019. The reader might recall that other continents, Asia and America, do not have a continental free trade zone except for the European Union and Australia.

With 54 countries, Africa has a significant say in international affairs. India’s median age is 27, whereas Africa’s is 19. 26 African countries are classified as middle-income, and 27 are low-income, covering nearly half of the continent’s population.

The African Union (AU), established in 2002, has eight Commissions elected at the AU summit along with a Chairman and Deputy Chairman. There is a Commissioner for Peace and Security.

The reader might wonder what that Commissioner is doing in the context of the unfolding tragedy in Sudan. Of course, this book was written before the start of the current crisis in that country.

Moreover, the book focuses on economic and developmental cooperation. However, a helpful section on Political and Security Issues explains the work assigned to the Peace and Security Council.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was established in 1963. The AU has announced a vision of AFRICA 2063: THE AFRICA WE WANT.

The second chapter, Old Neighbourhood, India’s Evolving Approach To Africa, opens with the proclamation Don’t set sail using someone else’s star. It draws attention to India’s leading role in the UN and NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) in accelerating the decolonisation of Africa.

This chapter gives an elaborate account of India’s Africa policy since 2001. In this context, the reader will be glad to know of the Pan-African E-Network Project (PAENP), proposed by India’s technically knowledgeable President, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, in 2005.

It was implemented by 2009, and the author co-chaired the first meeting of the coordinating committee. As the author notes, with his characteristic eye for detail, the project’s title does not mention India.

With regard to the “constant comparison” between India and China, the author takes a reasoned attitude. India is not competing with China. African countries do not look at India and China the same way and quantitatively compare the assistance.

China provides aid massively and has built stadia, parliaments, roads, and buildings, including the African Union Commission headquarters. As a soft power, India has given PAENP capacity-building capabilities, training, education, etc.

In 1958, Ethiopia wanted to have its own military academy. Emperor Haile Selassie 1 was ruling Ethiopia. The USA was keen to undertake the project. But the Emperor chose India.

In 1936, the Indian National Congress had marked an Abyssinia Day to oppose Italian dictator Mussolini’s invasion. India carried out the project, successfully replicating the Khadakwasla Academy. The Emperor was overthrown in a coup in 1974, and four years later, the academy was shut down.

The holding of periodic summits with Africa starting from 2008, three in all till now, has deepened India-Africa relations. India increased the number of scholarships from 500 in the first summit to 1100 in the second to 1600 in the third.

Another significant offer from India was establishing 21 institutions for vocational training and other purposes. Some institutions are at the pan-Africa level, others at a regional level, and some at a bilateral level.

The author makes one or two critical points. While India’s engagement with Africa increased exponentially, the human resources allotted to the territorial divisions dealing with that continent did not keep pace. Two, the budget allocation for Africa did not keep pace either.

The Ministry of External Affairs shortlisted a few Civil Society Organizations in India to work in Africa. The Bare Foot College is one of them, focusing on local schools and rainwater harvesting.

A team from Ethiopia visited Tilonia in Rajasthan. Solar lighting was added, too. The program was a success and was added to ITEC (Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation). By 2020, the Bare Foot College was active in 41 African countries.

SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) is another success story, though it could work only in three of the five countries chosen.

The author notes that India has not drawn the right lessons from what these two CSOs were able to achieve.

India started extending a Line of Credit to Africa in 2003. For example, India offered a Line of Credit of $1.9 billion in 2007-2008, $1.9 billion in 2008-2009, $3 billion in 2011-2012, and $5 billion in 2015-16 to 2019-2020. The author points out the need for scholars to study the track record of these Lines of Credit. The author has provided a good analysis.

The author gives several sensible suggestions for further action in the last two chapters.

This well-researched book must be compulsory for those in charge of policy in Africa and India. It is encyclopedic in its coverage.

The G20, which has admitted the African Union as a member, should look at this book. Since the G20 has no permanent secretariat, it will be for India, Brazil, and South Africa to act. This book should be translated into Portuguese to start with.

The article was published on

September 20th, 2023 | category:book-reviews |

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