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India's development cooperation: Post-2015 and beyond

30 October 2013 - Ivan Campbell, Sunil Suri

An op-ed in The Hindu earlier this year contended that negotiations on the post-2015 development framework offer India, “an opening to shape the rules of the game at a critical juncture of global institutional development”. However, during a recent visit to Delhi, Saferworld’s Ivan Campbell and Sunil Suri found that the Indian government does not see the post-2015 framework as a major priority – choosing instead to focus on advancing South-South cooperation as a means of furthering its own development and that of its partners.

With an estimated one in five Indians living in poverty, restoring robust economic growth and accelerating domestic development are key issues for the Indian general election in early 2014. Even hardened Hindu nationalists have, at least rhetorically, recalibrated their priorities – neatly captured by Nahendra Modi’s election slogan, “Toilets First, Temples Later”. Unsurprisingly then, poverty eradication is India’s main priority for the post-2015 framework, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently describing it as the “anchor” of any future framework.

Despite this, the Indian government does not view the post-2015 framework as an important aspect of its development agenda: “it is for Africa”, in the words of one senior official. In fact, India’s muted engagement with the post-2015 agenda reflects less its sense that international development is unimportant, and more its preference for addressing development issues, both internal and external, free from what National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon describes as “external entanglements” and “restraints on freedom of choice”. As Menon explained in 2011, “at the risk of disappointing those who call on India to be a “responsible” power (meaning that they want us to do what they wish)…‘India will be a different power’”. This shows clearly that India will not emulate anyone else’s global agenda but rather advance its own distinct perspective.

This is apparent in the government’s concern about bringing issues of peace, security and governance into the post-2015 agenda. The government’s  contribution to the impressive post-2015 national consultation report facilitated by UNDP warns against the inclusion of the ‘governance agenda’; while “issues relating to conflict and security should not be part of the development narrative per se”. Why is this? Publically, the Indian government has articulated its concern that the inclusion of such issues could “infuse a political colour to the entire discussions and distract us from the core developmental issues”. Rather pointedly, the Indian government has also tied discussion of governance issues to its wider demand for reform of institutions such as the UN, World Bank and the IMF.

But there are also other harder realities that will perhaps influence India’s position including the on-going Naxalite Rebellion, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has previously described as the “biggest internal security challenge” facing India, and of course, the unresolved status of Kashmir. In dealing with these problems, both of which have claimed thousands of lives over the past decades, India remains somewhat defiant as evidenced by the Prime Minister’s vow earlier this year that “India will never bow down before Naxalism”, and will accordingly want to act as it deems necessary free from any external impediment. This might explain India's reluctance, at least in part, to see the governance agenda integrated into the post-2015 framework.

Regardless of India’s limited appetite to discuss post-2015 issues, it remains a critical time to be engaging on India’s increasing and diversifying development cooperation. Research undertaken by the Center for Policy Research has revealed that India’s development assistance has increased four-fold from 2003 to 2014, with US$ 1.3 billion budgeted for this fiscal year.

India’s development cooperation was repeatedly described to us in India as ‘demand-driven’, based on ‘partnerships’ for mutual benefit and underpinned by non-interference in the sovereign affairs of other countries. But what does ‘demand-driven’ mean in practice? One former official answered that, “these are not projects that India wants to do, but is asked to do”. For example, Indian-supported diamond-cutting factories in Namibia and Angola actually compete with India’s own factories – a demonstration, in his view, of India’s commitment to South-South cooperation. Others have questioned precisely whose demands India is responding to, citing Indian financing and construction of a ‘luxurious palace’ for the Ghanaian President. In general, India’s development projects tend to reflect a mix of private sector (exports now account for 25 per cent of Indian GDP), national security (e.g. Afghanistan) and energy security interests (e.g. South Sudan) – which are often intricately entwined.

Speaking earlier this year at a roundtable in Delhi co-hosted by the Observer Research Foundation and Saferworld, Additional Secretary Raghavan of the Development Partnership Agency (DPA), responsible for managing India’s aid projects, highlighted a number of examples of how Indian development has benefited thousands across the globe. In 2012-13, for example, 9,000 civilians were trained from 161 developing countries under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme. As Dr. Mullen of the Center for Policy Research concludes, “the importance of Indian aid lies in the niche it fills and its complementarity to…traditional aid”.

Whether India has fully recognised and harnessed its comparative advantage in development cooperation is less apparent. One former official who had been based in Kabul lamented the fact that India invested US$ 10.8 billion in a power transmission line in Afghanistan, when for the same money it could have massively expanded its successful Afghan capacity-building programme – a form of development assistance much more problematic for Western donors. India’s comparative advantage is manifest in other areas, however: a stand-out example being the pan-African e-network launched in 2009, which harnesses India’s IT expertise to provide educational and medical support to African countries via satellite technology.   

Nonetheless, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the DPA (which sits within the MEA) continues to suffer systemic deficits identified by previous analysts such as the lack of staff resources, the rapid rotation of senior staff (the Indian official leading on the post-2015 framework, for example, is soon to become India’s High Commissioner to Malaysia), and a lack of a nuanced public debate to inform and steer development policy decisionmaking.

Furthermore, several of those we spoke to in Delhi also expressed concern that the DPA seemingly “lacks a clear strategy”. However, officials strongly iterated to us that the establishment of the DPA in 2012 did not represent a shift in India’s development policy, but “merely a new institutional arrangement”. Part of the confusion about India’s approach to development also reflects that it is not enshrined in formal policy documents but is implicit from statements by senior figures. In contrast, the Chinese government in 2011 for the first time published a White Paper on Foreign Aid (and a subsequent White Paper on Peaceful Development), with an updated paper on China’s aid expected in the coming months.

India’s approach to development is evolving and when one considers the immense domestic challenges India faces this is unsurprising, but it doubtless will become more clearly defined in future years. As part of this process, concerted efforts must be made to demonstrate the evidence that peace and security are essential for poverty to be eradicated – not least in Africa. India-Africa trade grew nearly 32% annually between 2005 and 2011, and is projected to reach US$ 90 billion by 2015. Increasing overseas investment and trade will mean that India’s growth is ever more vulnerable to outbreaks of conflict abroad. Recognition of this same vulnerability is perhaps why countries like China are increasingly clear about how development depends on progress towards lasting peace.

Within India’s policy community, the debate is growing about the nature of international development, its challenges and opportunities. The recently-established Forum on Indian Development Cooperation (FIDC), for example, is enabling a more open exchange about Indian development cooperation among different stakeholders. Combined with the fact that the Indian policy community is increasingly receptive to discussing these issues, there are certainly grounds for an open and thoughtful debate in the months and years to come.

Over the coming months Saferworld will continue its engagement on India’s role and policy for  development and peacebuilding in relation to the post-2015 agenda. This is part of a broader project focusing on five major ‘rising powers’: Brazil, China, India, Turkey and South Africa. To read more about India and conflict-affected states and the implications for post-2015 debates, click here.

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Regardless of India’s limited appetite to discuss post-2015 issues, it remains a critical time to be engaging on India’s increasing and diversifying development cooperation.

Ivan Campbell, Sunil Suri