COVID-19: India’s Approach towards the East African Community

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As a unique platform promoting prosperity, security, stability, competitiveness and political unification in the African Great Lakes region, East African Community (EAC), a regional intergovernmental organisation of six countries, comprising the Republics of Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, and United Republic of Tanzania continues to advance the national goals of partner countries by creating dynamic relations and ties of solidarity among themselves. Established with a vision to widen and deepen Economic, Political, Social and Cultural integration in order to improve the life of East African people through increased competitiveness, value-added production, trade and investments, East African Community has recognised the vitality of regional integration and common physical & institutional infrastructure in overcoming the problems posed by divisions created by geography, poor infrastructure and inefficient coordination mechanism. 

East African Community (EAC) on map

From political solidarities based on shared commitments to anti-colonialism, non-alignment, anti-racism and Afro-Asian solidarity, to the expansion of trade and investment flows, India’s engagement with partner nations of East African Community has been on constant rise. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tanzania and Kenya in 2016, followed by a tour of Rwanda and Uganda in 2018, symbolic of New Delhi’s remarkable outreach to the region has revitalised the relations and has made engagements more substantial.

However, the arrival of COVID-19, an existential crisis severely testing the social, economic and political resilience of global order, has posed extraordinary threat to the region’s progress. India’s diplomatic outreach to the partner countries of EAC, starting with the telephonic conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni followed by External Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar’s conversation with his counterparts in Kenya and Uganda, assuring all possible support in dealing with the pandemic, reaffirmed the strong relations that India shares with EAC countries. The donation of Rwf 135 million ($141,573) by Airtel Rwanda to support Rwanda’s fight against COVID-19 underlines the existence of multiple private stakeholders and their role in shaping coordinated response to crisis.

Indian High Commission at Kenya’s tweet on COVID-19 aid by India to Kenya.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres’s warning that the pandemic will aggravate long-standing inequalities and heighten hunger, malnutrition and vulnerability to disease in the region, makes global solidarity with Africa an imperative and India’s engagements with the countries of East African Community having desired potential to contribute significantly in mitigating the crisis becomes critical. 

With the economy of these countries projected to grow at a much slower pace than before due to the weakened global demand for goods, supply chain disruption and decline in export revenue, an effective long term policy planning keeping in mind the engagements with external actors is necessary to ensure structural transformation. Given the fact that agricultural activities account for livelihood of about 80 percent of the region’s population; the complementary sectoral priorities of India and EAC countries in the areas of agriculture and food security presents numerous opportunities for collaboration. Lack of technological inputs, micro-financing, qualitatively superior seeds combined with various other factors have contributed to the low agricultural productivity in the region.

Collaboration with India through training programmes, technology sharing, providing soft loans in agriculture and allied activities has the capability to reap the benefits of the sector to its true potential. There should also be an emphasis on civil society partnerships for facilitating the sharing of knowledge and best practices as well as enhancing people-to-people connect. Digital agriculture needs to be emphasized through the use of Information and Communication Technology and India’s experience in this regard can be beneficial for timely delivery of cropping, weather and price information to farmers of the East African region. Furthermore, the recent outbreak of Locusts swarm in East Africa threatening the already fragile food security there and also decimating thousands of acres of crops in Western India, calls for cooperation on combating this plague, India with its insecticides manufacturing units and in possession of sophisticated technological equipment can be of mutual benefit and must take the lead.

Ugandan President’s tweet on COVID-19 aid by India

Unlike health emergencies in the past, when the global community rallied to collectively help African continent and the region, the outbreak of COVID-19, a global threat in the presence of largely polarised global actors has come out with a lesson for the region to invest in healthcare, research and vaccine to develop modern healthcare system instead of being import-dependent. In pursuit of building a strong healthcare system, cooperation with India might well be the difference-maker. India’s multifaceted, comprehensive engagement including technical assistance, building health infrastructure, aid in East Africa’s health sector needs to be leveraged. By taking the private sector into confidence, their commercial presence in the form of hospitals, diagnostic centre, research and vaccine development centres can be established through setting up satellite partners in the region. Simultaneously, with cooperation on building digital infrastructure and bridging the digital divide, training programmes under India’s popular ITEC courses, meant for healthcare professionals needs to be enhanced. A greater focus on traditional medical practices such as Indian System of Medicine like Ayurveda and African traditional medicine with frequent engagement between the respective authorities can be of considerable benefit in promoting indigenous healthcare and making the healthcare system more inclusive.

In such unprecedented times, the role of financial inclusion in providing relief measures has become more important than ever. Financial Inclusion as a key enabler of reducing poverty and furthering development and prosperity can contribute immensely in both India and East Africa, where the informal sector constitutes a major part of the economic sphere.Cooperation on financial inclusion with active engagement of public and private players will prove to be mutually beneficial for both the sides in overcoming the shortcomings on FI front and thus needs to be brought to the table with frequent engagement under effective mechanism.

On security front, there is scope of cooperation on threat emanating from terrorism, the scourge of terrorism requires comprehensive multi-dimensional cooperation involving capacity development, information sharing, military to military ties and technical assistance. Taking the non-traditional aspect of security into account, the threat posed by problems like climate change, global warming in terms of natural disasters and economic cost due to huge adaptation cost of climate change calls for regular exchange and cooperation in forums of global reach to fix the accountability of Western developed countries towards these developing region.

African countries’ flags

The inefficacy of International institutions and global governance mechanism in shaping a collective response to the pandemic is a reminder of the potential devastation that can be caused due to absence of global solidarity, by upcoming global problems in such weakest link of global order like East African region. Thus, there is a need for active engagements and regular exchange of ideas through various diplomatic mechanisms in order to shape the Post-COVID World order and to prioritise the concerns of Global South at multilateral forums. Partner nations of East African Community, by allaying the differences among them and committing themselves to the wider regional interest can remind the need of institutionalism to today’s world community, which is generally obsessed with Hobbes world view of self-help. 

Likewise, India-East African Community cooperation, enabling both the sides to expand and enrich their cooperation bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally has the capability to provide a powerful antidote to this crumbling polarised global order.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

Aman Mehrotra

Aman Mehrotra is a Research Intern at The Kootneeti. His areas of interest include Indian Foreign Policy vis-à-vis, Africa.

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