Interview with Amit Roy: Africa Beckons

Must read

Washington, DC – Africa, the second largest and second most-populous continent behind Asia is standing at a crossroads today. In 2019, IAT launched its coverage of the continent which was chosen by Ivanka Trump – daughter and advisor to US President Donald J Trump – to launch a new Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP) with the aim of reaching 50 million women across the world by 2025, with an initial commitment of $50 million.

To highlight the basics about Africa, we reached out to Amit Roy, an international development expert and a highly respected pundit on the continent.

IAT: With your in-depth knowledge of the continent, what do you think is the major challenge facing it today?

Africa is vast with 54 sovereign countries. The continent faces many challenges despite being rich in minerals and oil, and 60% of earth’s cultivable land area – enough land to feed the world. Poverty is very acute. Although the poverty rate has dropped in recent years, but with rapid population growth – by 2050 the population will double from the current level of 1.2 billion – the number of people suffering poverty keep growing.

Of the 20 countries in the world with the worst food and nutrition security 90% are in Africa. The literacy rate in Africa is very low, more than two out of five African adults cannot read or write. This low literacy rate hinders effective use of donors’ funds, so the progress is slow in all sectors, particularly agriculture.

Nearly, two out three Africans depend on agriculture for their livelihood. But agriculture productivity is low because of the outdated technologies and techniques. Even when new technologies are adopted the farmers are not able to move their produce to markets because of poor infrastructures, particularly roads. Low road density (mainly in countries of Sub-Saharan Africa–See picture in the attachment) increases cost in some cases by more than 50% for landlocked countries. After many years of neglect, investing in agriculture is increasing not only to grow more nutritious food under uncertain climatic conditions but also to create employment for the burgeoning youth population.

Additionally, several African countries are investing in value addition to their raw materials instead of exporting them thus creating job opportunities for the youth. But poor governance, non-conducive policies and weak institutions are a hindrance to progress. But there are slow improvements in these areas.

Q: China is mentioned as a major investor but another school of thought labels Beijing as a loan-shark and a selfish and manipulative player. What’s your opinion?

China’s engagement in Africa is a business arrangement rather than development agenda. In contrast, development assistance from western countries have conditions attached to them particularly rule of law, transparency, engagement with civil societies in developing national policies etc.

China got a foothold in Africa through grants and loans for infrastructure development with some tied to moving raw materials to ports to sustain its own economy. For example, in Zambia is the second largest investment for China; a large part in the copper mining sector. They have also invested in agriculture and more than 25 farms are being run by Chinese entities. China has also given loans to several countries for infrastructure projects. But the labor needed for these projects are mostly Chinese with little opportunity for local employment. This has been a source of dissension amongst local populations.

Q: On the other hand, how is India doing – and how its equations are viewed there?

While influx of Chinese is a recent phenomenon, Indians have been in Africa for many decades when they were taken there as laborers in sugarcane fields and factories and laying train tracks to increase rail transportation. Indians also were educators, doctors and nurses. Today in most African countries, Indians operate businesses and are well accepted in the communities. So, there is a large Indian diaspora in Africa. India imports agricultural goods from Africa. India is the preferred destination for Africans for education and India provides scholarships, but the Indian society must be more welcoming to Africans. Indian businesses in Africa create employment for locals and are mostly considered to be ethical and welcomed in the country.

Q: There are several European countries which have been involved in Africa for decades. How are those faring there?

Several African countries were colonized by Europeans and many of them called Africa their home and became farmers, ranchers, business owners etc. Even when the colonial rules ended many Europeans became citizens of those countries and continued as before. But in Zimbabwe the Government expropriated lands from the Europeans with little or no compensation and distributed to landless Africans. The rational being that before European settlement the lands belonged to Africans. This has had disastrous consequences. Zimbabwe, whose agricultural productivity rivaled that of the US before land seizure, fell precipitously as the new land owners had very little experience in farming. The economy collapsed with hyper-inflation and rural poverty increased dramatically.

Raw material resources of Europe are quite limited and so in order to sustain its industrial and economic development it sees Africa amongst other continent as a source of both agricultural and natural resources. For example, Royal Dutch Shell is the major oil producer in Nigeria. Europe is also constrained in cultivable land, so they look to Africa to produce food for their consumptions and many of them through land deals. Many of these deals involve countries along the Nile and Niger rivers, whose water will be used to irrigate thirsty agricultural schemes. Typically, foreign investors win concessions at low rent and with extensive tax exemptions.

Contracts are often negotiated behind closed doors without consulting affected communities. Indeed, many of these schemes have seen local communities forcibly removed from their land.

Q: The US is still recovering from its history of slave trade and cultural divide. Do you see a US foreign policy in Africa?

Traditionally, US has responded to famine, natural disasters, and pandemics in Sub-Sahara African (SSA) countries with food, medical and development assistance. However, over the last couple of decades, there is more structured, long-term assistance in the areas of health, agriculture, trade and development. In 2000, US launched the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to increase trade and investment relationship with SSA. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PPFAR) was launched in 2003 to arrest and reverse the spread of HIV-AIDS, particularly in SSA. The following year (2004) the US government unveiled an independent entity — Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) – to assist developing countries with their development agenda.

The countries are selected based on certain criteria, such as governance, rule of law, participation of civil society in decision making. To combat the global food price rise of 2007/08 that disproportionately affected the less developed countries (many in Africa), and to reduce hunger and poverty in SSA and South East Asia, the US government launched the Feed the Future initiative in 2010.

And finally, the US government has launched the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP) in 2019 to empower 50 million women by 2025. Thus, US continues to invest in Africa but the modality is different from China. US assistance is well appreciated in countries that receive it. But progressively the recipient countries want to see these assistances more as partnership rather than donor – recipient relationship.

Q: With its wealth of natural resources and abundance of cultivable land, the possibilities for growth are enormous. What are some of the success stories in Africa?

Africa has vast potential, but one needs to exploit it within the social structure of the country to realize the benefit. A few countries have made progress. The shining example is Rwanda. In 25 years since genocide the country has undergone rapid industrialization thanks to successful government policy. Since the early-2000s, Rwanda has witnessed an economic boom improving the living standards of many Rwandans. Also, the poverty level continues to decline. Rwanda is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has noted his ambition to make Rwanda the “Singapore of Africa”.

I am optimistic about Africa, but it has to improve its governance, develop conducive policies, build human capacity and increase participation of women in government, development, and business.

About the author

Author profile

Tejinder Singh, Editor, India America Today & White House Correspondent

More articles

Latest article