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Op-eds

India-Israel tech co-operation: a model for BRICS countries?

  • Vijeta Uniyal
The BRICS group of countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are meeting in Johannesburg this week for their annual summit. BRICS is a formidable international geopolitical bloc, representing almost three billion people – which translates to over 40% of the world population – and covering almost 27% of the earth’s surface.
by VIJETA UNIYAL | Jul 26, 2018

In contrast, the State of Israel, with its relatively tiny population of eight million, appears more like a statistical rounding error. In size, the country is even smaller than the Kruger National Park.

Counter-intuitive as it may sound, partnering with the Jewish State could help BRICS countries manage some of the pressing challenges knocking at the horizon.

Israel has been ahead of the curve when it comes to tackling some of the issues faced by South Africa, India and the other BRICS countries. These include shrinking arable land, receding water-tables or the gaping digital divides between the developed and the developing world.

Take emerging technologies, for instance. As the global economy marches towards automation and digitisation, technology is once again dividing the winners and the losers of today’s post-industrial age.

According to the world-renowned Israeli author and Hebrew University history professor, Yuval Noah Harari, we are once again at a watershed moment in human history. We have a handful of countries leading today’s technology revolution and the rest lagging behind.

“When the Industrial Revolution began in the 19th century, a few countries such as Britain, France and Japan mastered the new technologies of steam engines, trains and telegraphs. Most countries, such as China, Korea and India, remained far behind,” says Harari.

“It took countries such as China, Korea and India almost 150 years to close the gap that opened in the 19th century,” he adds, concluding that those left behind this time may “never get a chance to close the gap”.

As sobering as Harari’s premise sounds, it is not a call for pessimism.

The rise of India’s information technology sector in the 1990s shows how a developing country can leverage technology to overcome structural deficits created by lack of infrastructure and poor governance. India’s IT sector contributes $130 billion (R1.7 trillion) in revenue and contributed 40% of the country’s total exports between 2010 and 2015.

The sector has also emerged as a big job creator, employing 3.5 million Indians.

In a rapidly changing world, it is not enough to rest on past laurels. Despite impressive growth, rural areas in BRICS countries remain persistently behind in mobile and internet penetration.

Internet and mobile-based technology create global disparities, while carrying the promise of improving lives for millions of people living in rural, poorly connected or remotely accessible regions – from providing micro banking to directing disaster relief.

Today’s smartphones pack more computing power than all of US space agency NASA did when it put the first men on the moon in the late 1960s.

In South Africa, more than 20 million people, or 40% of the population, have access to the internet, mostly on mobile devices. The number of internet users in India has crossed 500 million, nearly half of the population.

The spread of mobile and telecommunication networks open new possibilities. These are not just in commercially viable retail or finance sectors, but also in direct democracy, public administration and e-governance.

Technology has been the driving force behind the growing trade between India and Israel. Bilateral trade between the two countries has grown from about $200 million (R2.7 billion) to nearly $5 billion (R67 billion) since diplomatic ties were fully restored in the early 1990s.

Looking ahead, the India-Israel partnership in the start-up sector alone has a revenue potential of $25 billion (R337 billion), according to The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), the association of Indian IT firms.

Israeli and Indian innovators and entrepreneurs have joined forces to create healthcare solutions for rural India, a low-profit segment often overlooked by the big pharmaceuticals.

Mumbai-based Reliance Industries is hoping to rope in Israeli know-how and talent to create services and solutions for a 100 million to 200 million-strong potential customer base spanning across India.

In a world veering away from a manufacturing-based economy towards a technology-based one, South Africa and other BRICS countries need to create shared technology ecosystems to bring their best and the brightest together. The emerging partnership between India and Israel offers a model for emerging BRICS economies.

  • Vijeta Uniyal is an Indian journalist based in Germany.

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