What are the threats to India’s development cooperation strategy?

My alma-mater, Institute of Development Studies, Sussex runs the Rising Powers in International Development programme, where one of the focus countries is India. This policy brief on India’s emerging development cooperation strategy reflects on the opportunities for India in the field of international development cooperation:

the recently elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition government has yet to articulate a clear development policy despite election pledges to strengthen India’s position as world leader, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proactive foreign policy engagement. India needs to move on from the rhetoric of South-South Cooperation and ad hoc decisions based on high-level bilateral visits, to a more concrete development agenda. It can play to the strength of its civil society experience in poverty reduction, livelihood promotion and good governance, and it needs to develop appropriate regulatory mechanisms for companies operating its lines of credit (LOCs) or involved in foreign direct investment

In this post, I reflect on what I consider are the main threats to the execution of effective development cooperation, enmeshed as it is, within our foreign policy. Prime MInister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy has been widely lauded for a focus on our neighbours and the Indian Ocean, and in general, for his personal touch. During the last year, we also pulled off four distinct set-pieces that demonstrate respectively, compassion, readiness, negotiation and military intelligence – the Yemen airlift, Nepal relief, Bangladesh land exchange, and most recently, the Myanmar operation.

In between all the activity on the foreign policy front, development cooperation has made its presence felt. But there remain some serious concerns that stem from the way the current government has gone about its business.

  • The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the proposed SAARC bank, lines of credit to our neighbours and African countries are all examples of steps taken to open up development finance for the global South. However, it remains to be seen whether the AIIB will become a China-centric institution? There are important distinctions between Indian and Chinese state-craft (and these are differences that must remain) that could create tensions in the operation of these institutions. The IDS brief rightly points to the lack of dialogue on social and environmental standards. The burden will be on AIIB to prove that they are in existence to help countries ‘avoid’ meddlesome international standards.
  • Bilateral visits have yielded a multitude of financial commitments. However, worryingly, some reports suggest there might be a delivery issue here, with hard fund allocations falling far short of the commitments being made on foreign soil. Our over-enthusiastic media and trigger-happy government representatives should be a huge cause for concern.
  • An accepted mode of extending our strategic interests is facilitating investments overseas by Indian investors. Here, there are even bigger reasons to worry about, if one were to believe the reports of this government primarily facilitating the investments of its capitalist cronies.
  • Through its recent strikes against foreign funded civil society action in India, the government has deservedly attracted criticism and censure. A vibrant civil society is one of India’s achievements. Cracking down on them domestically will mean having to watch what we say overseas, and considerably diminishes our moral authority.

It is widely acknowledged that a bulk of our global influence and attractiveness as an investment destination stems from our growing domestic consumption base (the market, if you like). But what gives India’s development cooperation an additional heft (and quite a significant one at that) is our so-called ‘soft power’ – the power of our history, culture, skilled migrants, and democratic politics. While we may be dismayed at our global geo-political importance, we have actually punched above our economic weight precisely because of this soft power. Tampering with any of these aspects therefore, whether at home or overseas, will detract from the influence we have on the world.

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