In November last year, Indian and Japanese Prime Ministers, Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe, conceptualised the idea of an Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC).
It is an ambitious undertaking to connect the financial and technological resources of Japan with India to spearhead a chain of economic development projects in Africa, but with the clear buy in of the nations involved.
The sectors identified are health, agriculture, disaster management and skill enhancement. To make AAGC a coherent plan, three think tanks, Japan’s IDE-Jetro, Singapore’s Eria and India’s Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries (RIS) were tasked with building an initial vision document in time for release at the annual meeting of the African Development Bank in New Delhi.
In an interview to Swarajya, Sachin Chaturvedi, Director General of RIS speaks on the key issues involved.
India has tried to deepen the economic connect with Africa quite a few times in the past. Why should we think it is different this time?
While big events between India and Africa have happened several times and, as you pointed out, with indifferent success, the connect between the two has risen sharply over the years. As the Prime Minister pointed out in his speech, India’s commodity trade with Africa in 2015-16 was higher than our commodity trade with the United States. True, Africa is a collection of 54 countries but even with their combined strength (of economy), to expect them to rival the United States as a trade partner for India is remarkable.
Also, there are grey spots — the IMF report on sub Saharan Africa shows growth has tapered off to 1.4 per cent last year, way down from their average of 5 plus rate and the lowest in two decades. But as the report also shows, to climb back, the region needs economic diversification and improvement in the business climate. These are areas where India can uniquely help—it has played a helping hand with many of these countries and has been appreciated for not imposing a mounting debt problem as the cost of the help.
So yes, while there has been sputtering of efforts earlier, now as the continent’s economies come of age on one side, with India too able to offer a larger range of options, things are changing rapidly.
Who is driving the connectivity vision this time around? India or Japan?
Both. Let me take you back a bit. Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had met for their annual prime ministerial summit in Tokyo in November 2016.
At that meeting while they acknowledged the significant progress in bilateral relations, they also found the common ground of shared values, convergent interests and complementary skills and resources ideally placed to promote economic and social development, capacity building, connectivity and infrastructure development in the Asia Pacific region.
Abe suggested a new initiative combining the human, financial and technological resources of the two countries to advance these objectives including through Japanese overseas development assistance (ODA) projects. Prime Minister Modi acknowledged the importance of bilateral cooperation in this regard.
Why shouldn't the outreach be compared with the One Belt One Road initiative driven by China? Even if it isn’t, a comparison is bound to be made; what makes the two different?
There are plenty of differences. In fact, the underlying visions of the two programmes are just not comparable.
The Indian and Japanese collaboration is built on mutual respect for every participating nation’s priorities. Of the three aspects of connectivity that drives the vision document - physical, institutional and people to people - I would rate the third as the most critical part of the project.
Once people and, based on them, institutions connect, a whole range of cooperation opens up to push economic growth. It would happen by linking the economies of Asia and Africa through development of supporting infrastructure (port, airport, industrial park, telecommunication, information technology), capacities for planning and execution of projects, trade facilitation, human resource development and technology improvement.
These are ambitious plans but they are eminently feasible since they will be built only on the voluntary cooperation of the countries involved.
At this stage, the concept of an Asia Africa Growth Corridor is still a vision document that RIS has developed with ERIA and IDE-JETRO. Am I right?
So when you see the document, you find at its heart is a GSM (geographical simulation modelling) framework which is, in turn, based on a robust development cooperation framework. Together the two demonstrate that such a large-scale connectivity project spanning decades can only come alive once a people to people connect is established.
That is why I say it is so important here since it helps to bring in commitment from the nations involved. And that again can only happen if the small enterprises see value in the plans. Because you cannot create a mega industrial corridor that leaves the intervening countryside between the two nodes bereft of any large benefit.
To make all of this happen will need the willing cooperation of the civil society in the countries where India and Japan aim to participate to create infrastructure. So the role of RIS is going to be pretty important to ensure that people see value in those projects—only then do they become quality infrastructure.
A key part of the connectivity plan is going to be identification of priority projects, which can be economically and financially feasible. How does one surmount political rivalry within the continent to ensure the right ones get picked?
These are practical difficulties, no doubt. In the first phase taking into account the importance of the Indian Ocean littoral states, the bilateral partnership will focus on countries on the eastern coast of Africa. Thus, in this phase, seven countries on the east coast - Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa - suggest the likely candidates. These are again based on the GSM Model that Jetro has developed and will be overlaid with the work that RIS will take up to reach out to the people of these nations.
Also, as part of the expanding network of relations, island countries in the western Indian Ocean - Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and the Comoros - will also be offered priority in India-Japan cooperation. In the next stage, the three countries from the western coast of Africa, notably Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana and Gambia, will become the priority areas for reaching out to the hinterland and nations behind them. So you can see there is no scope for rivalry as there is a deep cohesion in the vision, which all nations involved in it will readily identify with.
How deep is the investment being planned now?
It is early days. But given the multi-nation scale, you can estimate that the amount will not be small. And multilateral institutions will obviously be highly interested.
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