Monday, 13 June 2011

Aid to India - the bigger picture

After months of lobbying and negative press from elements of the political right, the UK government has announced its intention to cut or terminate aid to India. International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell's announcement this week that the Indian part of the UK's programme has been frozen and that he could not see it continuing "for very much longer" drew gloating cheers from those who argue that a nation with a space programme, nuclear weapons and a growing number of millionaires should not receive handouts from the developed world.

Their simplistic celebrations however, overlook the bigger picture - which is far more nuanced that they appear to comprehend. India has a chronic poverty problem -with more impoverished people than the entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa. And the fact that successive governments have failed to adequately address this should not prevent other states seeking to improve the lives of those suffering.

After all international aid is not dependent on the financial sense of governments in those states receiving it. Much of the time it is about direct assistance to those suffering precisely because their own governments are too wasteful, corrupt or selfish to do so. If aid to impoverished Indians is cut on the grounds that the Indian government wastes resources on space flights or nuclear warheads, then most other UK aid programmes must join it on the scrap-heap. After all Mugabe's government wastes money of killing democratic dissidents, Thein Sein's government wastes money on slaughtering members of ethnic minority groups and Mahinda Rajapaksa's government wastes money on war crimes in Tamil Eelam.

The important thing is to ensure that direct aid reaches those in need (whilst of course pursuing political change) rather than write off any potential of helping the most unfortunate people on the basis that a domestic political elite practicing good governance would be able to sort the problems 'in house'.

Beyond this, the language used by those who endorse cutting aid to India reveals a startling amount about their true motives and risks even more dangerous precedent-setting. Increasingly the apparent injustice of giving aid to "rich" India, is mentioned in the same breath as financial cuts and poverty "at home". This implies an "us-and-them" or "charity begins at home" mindset, threatening popular support for the government commitment to continue international aid spending at 0.7% of GDP and to the admirable campaigns to increase this measly figure to 1%. Ultimately India and its wasteful space programme are being used as poster boys for people who would like to see a roll back of the progress made over previous decades and have international aid once again relegated to an afterthought.

Here too they miss the real picture: the importance of international aid for global security, the horror of people starving to death or dying of easily preventable diseases, the pain felt by children who have not drunk water for days or of mothers who inadvertently infect their young with HIV through their breast milk. We are facing huge issues relating to homelessness, debt, child poverty and inadequate housing in the UK -but earmarking 70p of every £100 in the national coffers for the entirety of the developing world is very little indeed: even £1 in every £100 barely seems enough.

India -like many nations- has a wasteful government. And India- like many nations - has millions of people whose living standards are so low, those of us lucky enough to live in the UK could barely imagine them. We need to make sure UK development programmes work - that they aren't hampered by corruption, that they reach those in need, and that they are targeted and efficient enough to make a real difference. But beyond anything else we need to help those in poverty - by enhancing or improving our aid - not by cutting it.

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