The real reason we should cut aid to India

When Britain begs India to keep taking handouts, you know aid is more about nourishing soulless Westerners than feeding hungry Southerners.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The debate about whether Britain should continue giving aid to India will surely rank as one of 2012’s most ‘Alice in Wonderland’ political moments. An outsider to the world of international aid probably imagines that it is cash-strapped countries in the South who do the pleading, sometimes having to humiliate themselves by asking Western nations for financial assistance. Yet in the surreal affray over aid to India, it was the well-off giver – Britain – which was on its knees, begging, beseeching the Indians to continue accepting our largesse because if they didn’t, it would cause the Lib-Con government ‘great embarrassment’.

This unseemly spat sums up the problem with modern aid: it’s all about Us, not Them. The reason British ministers were prostrating themselves before India, effectively begging the Indians to remain as beggars, is because aid is now more about generating a moral rush in the big heads of politicians and activists over here than it is about filling the tummies of under-privileged people over there. It is designed to flatter and satisfy the giver rather than address the needs of the receiver, which means ‘aid to India’ is way more important to Britain than it is to India. And for that reason, because aid has been so thoroughly corrupted by the narrow needs of its distributors, it would indeed be a good thing to stop foisting it upon India and other nations.

There was something almost Pythonesque (and I never use that word) in the sight of British politicians saying ‘We must continue giving aid to India’ while Indian politicians were saying ‘We do not require the aid. It is a peanut in our total development spending.’ Those were the words of India’s finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, who told his parliament that the nation should ‘voluntarily’ give up the £280million it receives from Britain each year. Cue outraged – and panicked – ministers and do-gooders in London kickstarting a PR campaign to show that the Indians are wrong – they do need British aid, because otherwise, according to Britain’s minister for international development Alan Duncan, in an article illustrated with a photograph of him accepting flowers from grateful little Indians, ‘millions could die’.

But it soon became clear that it is Britain, not India, which needs this aid set-up – existentially speaking. Indeed, during last week’s weird clash, it was revealed that, last year, British ministers sent a private communique to India begging it not to free itself from Britain’s apron strings. According to a leaked memo, the Indian foreign minister, Nirumpama Rao, proposed that India should ‘not avail of any further DFID [UK Department for International Development] assistance with effect from 1 April 2011’. Officials at DFID subsequently contacted the Indians and told them that cancelling British aid would cause ‘grave political embarrassment’ to the British government, not only because Britain had spent £1 billion of UK taxpayers’ money on aid to India over the past five years, but also because it has expended much ‘political capital’ on ‘justifying the aid to their electorate’.

Plan’s promo leaflet

‘Political capital’ – that’s the key phrase in this topsy-turvy situation where a relatively well-off Western nation pleads with a developing nation to continue taking alms. Aid is now all about the political capital it provides to the givers, the moral mission it creates for politicians and NGO types who can say ‘WE CARE’. Aid is less about feeding the poor than it is about feeding the egos of Western campaigners who, lacking direction in life, leech off Third World unfortunates in an effort to advertise their own moral decency. This outlook, this use of charity to boost the moral fortunes of the givers rather than dramatically improve the lives of the receivers, is beautifully summed up in a promo leaflet currently being distributed by the British charity Plan – it shows a poor but smiling African girl, wearing rags, alongside the words ‘She can change your life forever’. That is, by giving charity to this girl you can turn your empty, consumerist life around by becoming Good!

This is what poor Africans and Indians now represent to many in the aid industry – symbolically destitute creatures who can help change our lives by allowing themselves to be cooed over and cared for. Forget the days when aid or charity was about trying to change their lives, about improving the lot of the properly downtrodden; now it’s about improving the moral lot of modern-day missionaries in the West. The problem is that, in order to sustain this moral charade of caring Westerners ostentatiously ‘saving’ smiling African girls and empty-tummied Indians, the receivers of British largesse must dutifully play the role of skinny, bewildered, desperate people, because if they don’t, then the self-serving magic of the aid relationship, its ability to change our lives forever, will be lost. And modern India is simply no longer willing to play that role.

Indeed, Indian officials said the reason they want to reject British aid is not only because it is ‘peanuts’, but also because DFID has a tendency to present Indians as financial and moral basket cases who need the help of their now-reformed former rulers. A leaked Indian memo railed against the ‘negative publicity of Indian poverty promoted by DFID’, while an Indian journalist said his country is ‘increasingly exasperated at being treated as a needy beneficiary’. As well it should be. India has grown exponentially in recent years and there have been corresponding leaps forward in social life – life expectancy has risen eight years over the past two decades, to a new average high of 66.8 years. Of course, development is uneven in India and there is still much poverty – but it’s just not on to expect India to play the role of the bowl-waving nation, not only because that’s an inaccurate image but also because it is one cynically drawn up by Western campaigners who need India to stay in that position in order to sustain their own life narratives.

In sending the signal that it no longer wants British aid, India is implicitly rebelling against an aid system that is now more about nourishing the souls of the givers rather than boosting the living conditions of the receivers. Today, it is a lack in the hearts and minds of Western activists, rather than in the stomachs of Southern peoples, which motors the massive aid and NGO industry. At least the old colonial missionaries to the Third World actually had a mission – one which involved trying to ‘improve’ dark-skinned people by giving them the Bible and teaching them English and manners. In contrast, today’s mission-less missionaries, from officials like Alan Duncan to the army of do-gooders who staff Plan and Oxfam and other patronising Third World charities, go to the South in search of a mission and they fundamentally need the poor to stay as they are, as symbols of destitution, in order to prop up the billion-pound piece of moral theatre that is modern international aid.

British historian William Hutton once said, ‘The charity that hastens to proclaim its good deeds ceases to be charity, and is only pride and ostentation’. That is pretty much all that remains in the world of aid: pride and ostentation. Indeed, it is striking that, in 2010, when DFID announced cuts to spending on the publicity side of ‘fighting global poverty’, various NGOs went ballistic, slamming the focus on ‘output-based aid’ over important things such as ‘increas[ing] public understanding of the causes of global poverty’ – that is, who cares about providing on-the-ground stuff, when there’s so much awareness-raising about the wonderfulness of NGOs to be done? Britain’s aid budget should be slashed, not because it costs the taxpayer too much money, as Daily Mail moaners argue, but because it costs too much in terms of the self-respect of nations in the South. Britain should have an emergency aid budget, of course, so that, like all civilised nations, it can assist quickly and generously when people are immediately threatened by starvation or disease, such as after the Haiti earthquake or the Pakistani floods. But the rest of the time, even sometimes struggling peoples don’t need the massive side orders of moralism and fatalism that come with Britain’s ‘peanuts’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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