The emperor gets a new wardrobe

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently had 40 African leaders donned in his signature raw silk kurtas (aka Modi jackets) and safas at the closing gala of the India-Africa Forum Summit in late October. The gesture symbolized “stitching together the fabric of new partnerships with Africa,” wrote author Vikas Swarup (of Slumdog Millionaire fame), on Twitter. As India tightens its grip on economic powerhouse status, the Summit is part of a broader strategy for India to gain greater access to growing economies in Africa.

India also announced at the Summit a commitment to offer billions in credit, build infrastructure for health, agriculture, start a development fund of $100 million and provide 50,000 scholarships for African students (to mention a few). India has clearly taken note of China’s success in a $200+ billion courting of the continent. On a purely business level, it makes sense for India to leverage the popularity of development discourse to infiltrate Africa. This way, the subcontinent positions itself both as generous cousin and friendly proprietor.

I am not denouncing the potential merits of some bilateral partnerships; nations usually do not make economic strides alone. African states want to grow and African people are eager for greater opportunities and incomes. Knowledge exchange is a good thing, as can be trade and access to the resource pools of foreign partners who have more advanced infrastructure and technology.

Nevertheless, the approach of many African leaders is to engage with various foreign partners who offer similar vices vis a vis development, that is; aid, debt and outsourcing. At the recent Indo-African Summit the Indian Government showed it was willing to help African leaders get their financial fix.  The effect is that Indian cultural influence will likely rise in Africa, while African political elites will continue to use the spoils of development to serve their personal interests.

For example, Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili was quoted at the India Summit praising the Indian armed forces, who have been training officers from Lesotho as a form of in-kind aid. The Mountain Kingdom is becoming increasingly military-run with a polarizing Lieutenant General who was appointed by Mosisili. A football match between the military and National University of Lesotho students recently turned violent because the military disapproved of the students’ song choices. No one was prosecuted.

Events like the India-Africa Forum Summit make one wonder about the untold millions of dollars dedicated to shaping specific public perceptions about quality and outcomes. On the surface, India is the charitable patron who aims to build training facilities for skills development and enhance manufacturing capacity as well as self-reliance. But aside from a $10 billion concessional credit and $7.4 billion credit programme, the Indian government’s proposed reforms will enhance their profile and brand image more than contribute to any kind of “development”.

The politically correct justification for the habitual insistence of countries such as India and China to exploit national friendship as a mechanism for commercial benefit is that there can be unity in diversity. Do we therefore shut up and feign ignorance to the apathetic capitalistic agenda at play?

Evidence of how well South African and Chinese enterprises blossom in Lesotho is already observable in the clothing choices of many Basotho. It is not uncommon to see Basotho in Chinese attire at shopping complexes or walking on the streets. It should not come as a surprise then, to see a rise in popularity of saris and Modi jackets on the streets of Maseru and other African cities as Indo-African ties strengthen. The adoption of foreign style is an indicator of the power and financial influence of the foreign investors who woe African leaders under the guise of development. With the closing of the India-Africa Forum Summit and the promises such an affair brings, the emperors of African countries are once again wearing new clothes.

*The Inequality Series is a partnership with the Norwegian NGO, Students and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH).

Through writing and dialogue, SAIH aims to raise awareness about the damaging use of stereotypical images in storytelling about the South. They are behind the Africa For Norway campaign and the popular videos Radi-AidLet’s Save Africa: Gone Wrong and Who wants to be a volunteer, seen by millions on YouTube.

For the third time, SAIH is organizing The Radiator Awards; on the 17th of November a Rusty Radiator Award is given to the worst fundraising video and a Golden Radiator Award is given to the best, most innovative fundraising video. You can vote on your favorite in each category here.

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