As a beneficiary of British foreign aid — I bought my first house with money saved from the generous salary an aid project paid me when I worked in the South Seas — I am well placed to appreciate the absurdity of continued British aid to India. It is not only absurd: it is corrupt, the modern equivalent of what Charles Bradlaugh and Henry Labouchere considered the ‘Empire’, a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes.
India, which has just announced that it will do what Britain could not do — send a space probe to Mars — is now a country with more technological prowess than Britain. Its economic progress has been remarkable. I have been going on and off to Kolkata, City of Dreadful Night, for 40 years, and the difference between my first and last visit is startling. There is still poverty, but they don’t any longer collect dead people from the pavements who have died in the night of starvation.
Former Indian finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee (now president), said that India didn’t need British aid which, he added, was “peanuts” anyway. He was right on both counts, but oddly enough his pronouncement — no more than the most obvious truth — was met by almost grovelling British requests to continue aid to India. Why?
One hesitates to employ an explanation that a polytechnic lecturer in politics might favour, but there is surely in this urgent desire to send aid to a former possession the hangover of a colonial superiority complex, allied to the hope that the world has not changed as much as it seems to have done: that, in short, Britain is still top dog, or at any rate very nearly so.
If Britain gives them aid, it must be because they need it and therefore that Britain is superior to them in some way. It seems to have escaped the notice of the British government, at least, that it required an Indian takeover of Land Rover and Jaguar to make a go of them, the task being beyond British organisational powers.
This is not to say that India has no problems; it remains profoundly corrupt and its government is incapable of passing necessary reforms. Rural poverty is deep and persistent. Nevertheless, it is not so very long ago that all right-thinking people saw the future of India as hopeless, one of perpetual epidemic and recurring famine.
But life expectancy in India is now the same as was mine when I was born in England. No doubt it is easier to make rapid progress when starting from a low level, but the fact remains that India has progressed very fast and has done so without resort to a vicious authoritarianism, highly imperfect in multiple ways as its democracy might be.
India’s young population thirsts for real education in a way than much of Britain’s does not; and one manifestation of the underlying wisdom of India is its low tally of medals at the Olympic Games, only six (none gold) when it has a sixth of the world’s population. Its young people have more important things to do than put the shot or throw the javelin.
It is not aid that has caused India to develop, but the efforts of its own people. Aid is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of the economic development of a poor country; there is no country that has been lifted out of poverty by aid, which is a form of international social security for corrupt governments.
I saw this in Africa, working on a project that enriched an inefficient British company and its personnel, and those local government officials whom it bribed, while the country remained poorer than ever, a kind of tropical Merthyr Tydfil. The economic growth that Africa is now experiencing is thanks to higher commodity prices and somewhat wiser government policies, and has nothing to do with aid.
In any case, to lump poor countries together as if they were all in the same category is false, a form of uninterested and morally frivolous condescension towards all of them. India has a long, varied, glorious (and terrible) history of civilisation, with the sophistication necessary to absorb influences from abroad, including western scientific ones.
The best and most beautiful spoken English in the world is to be heard in India. It is outrageous that Britons condescend to it with their paltry aid. In the 1880s, a young army doctor, Ronald Ross, who went on to discover the mosquito transmission of malaria at Secunderabad and to win one of the first Nobel Prizes for Medicine, wrote a poem that began: ‘Here from my lonely watchtower of the East An ancient race outworn I see — With dread, my own dear distant Country, lest The same fate fall on thee’.
It would be an exaggeration to say, except perhaps metaphorically, that such a fate has actually befallen Britain; but our continued aid to India is nevertheless a manifestation of the national administrative, mental and ethical torpor, as well as incompetence and corruption, that is leading Britons inexorably to economic and social disaster. It is high time they stopped such aid, and not only to India.
— The Telegraph Group Ltd, London 2012