The right side of loyalty
A few weeks ago, on a particularly lively episode of Question Time, Alan Duncan of DFID and Emma Boon of the TPA went into battle over the thorny issue of UK aid to India. Boon described the apparent spendthrift nature of the Indian Government – pointing to their space programme and the fact that there are more billionaires on the sub-continent than there are here (even when you count the Russians). Duncan took the opposite view – describing the acute poverty that remains, the vaccines that are needed, the schools that we have built. Both were right and both were wrong.
India does have wealth and it does have poverty – as do most emerging and developing economies. In some ways, that gulf is proof of development becoming a reality and, as long as the middle classes grow and poverty diminishes over time, we should celebrate it as progress.
But British aid to India is still a good use of taxpayers’ money and it remains the right thing to do. We have a historic relationship with India that is unique – our shared history, culture and language bestow on us a special obligation to the poor of that country that we would not owe in isolation. This is not because of imperial guilt but because we ought to feel for Indians – who are part of Britain’s international family – a diluted but important echo of what we feel for British citizens. We would never dream of allowing Brits to starve in the street – and we should, to a lesser but real degree – do our bit to ensure that Indians do not suffer that fate either.
'But can’t they pay for themselves?' I hear the development-deniers ask. And yes, they must begin to organise their economy in such a way as to provide a proper safety-net for their more vulnerable citizens. But it takes a long time to grow a functioning welfare state and to abandon the very poor of a country with whom we have such close ties and such a long-term relationship would be deeply immoral. And what is more, development funding to India is really that. This is the world’s largest democracy – another commonality between India and the UK and something that differentiates India from much of Africa and South-East Asia – which will, in time, find ways of stabilising and utilising the wealth it creates for the betterment of its society. To be part of that mission is a privilege – it should be a source of pride that our national project mirrors and assists theirs – not a burden.
This is not an argument, you will notice, for universal aid. And that is where, in my view, Duncan got it a little wrong. We have limited resources and not every need can be met, so justifying our aid money purely in terms of that need is a recipe for hypocrisy. But with the means at our disposal we should be prioritising those people, cultures and nations with whom we have a pre-existing emotional and particular bond. India is a great nation that has enjoyed bountiful success but which is in some ways still finding its way. Britain should be on the right side of both history and loyalty, and should continue to help.