At a time when public spending is being slashed in every direction, British aid to India has become a political embarrassment. Again and again you hear it: why on earth are we still giving money to people who live inside one of the world’s most dynamic economies?
The question has become a useful stick with which to beat government policy. Almost alone among government departments, the department for international development has had its budget left intact. In fact, it will actually increase by a third over the coming years so that by 2013 the aid Britain gives should equal at least 0.7 per cent of national income — a United Nations target that other European countries show little sign of reaching. Most people thought such an ambition fine and dandy before the state of Britain’s finances was made plain by the credit crunch. Television pictures of wretched children in Africa and flood-refugees in Pakistan made the government aid programme look both noble and necessary, and only the harshest critics of the aid business ever complained. But now the public mood has changed — not entirely, but enough for questions about the purpose and true benefits of aid to be aired on BBC panel shows and even in traditionally pro-aid newspapers such as the Guardian.
On paper, India looks a hard case to justify. Other Western countries have cancelled or reduced their programmes in India, but Britain carries on as before. It contributes about 30 per cent of India’s bilateral aid and is spending about £280 million a year on Indian projects — a total of more than £1 billion between now and 2015, which is peanuts in terms of global finance but not insignificant to the donor country, where the government has turned cost-cutting into a mission statement. India is a nuclear power with a space programme, the world’s second fastest rate of economic growth after China, and about 70 dollar billionaires. Britain has nuclear weapons it can’t afford, a risible growth rate and fewer than half the number of billionaires. In other words, the bankrupt are giving to the booming. If there have to be begging bowls, surely they should be in the opposite hands?
Andrew Mitchell, the cabinet minister in charge of the aid programme, defends aid to India as best he can. For all its prosperity, Mitchell says, India still contains more poor people than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa and British aid is focused on the three poorest states, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. In February, he said that it was “in both India’s interest and in Britain’s interest for us to continue our highly successful collaboration on development, not least so we can support the government of India’s own successful programmes in the poorest priority areas”. This month he wasn’t quite so bullish, saying that while now wasn’t the time to stop the programme in India he didn’t think “we will be there for very much longer”.
The criticism may have moderated the minister’s tone, but the facts remain unchanged (the programme will continue as planned until 2015) as well as rather awkward. The British have long been aware of India’s soaraway success as an economy; what fewer of us realized until recently is that India too is an aid donor. It funds projects in Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It has spent $1.2 billion in assistance to Afghanistan. At the recent India-Africa summit in Addis Ababa, it brought African delegates cheering to their feet by pledging $5 billion in aid for their continent. In the words of Shashi Tharoor, the former external affairs minister, India “has now emerged as a significant donor to developing countries in Africa and Asia, second only to China in the range and quantity of development assistance given by countries of the global South”.
Look at this from the simple-minded British taxpayer’s point of view. Part of his taxes — admittedly the tiniest fraction — is spent trying to ensure that the poorest girls and women in Orissa get better education, nutrition and healthcare. He’s slightly puzzled by this. On TV, he can see Indian billionaires drinking champagne at impossibly lavish weddings and even quite ordinary Indians watching their plasma TVs — surely some of that wealth should be redistributed to the poor? Nonetheless, the British taxpayer has a dim understanding that Indian wealth is even more unequally divided than wealth in Britain and that national boundaries shouldn’t constrain his generosity, no man being an island and so forth. Fair enough — but then he discovers that the situation is more complicated than he thought. British taxpayers are paying for Indian projects while Indian taxpayers are paying for African projects.
He might decide at this point that aid was about more than the UN’s declared aim of abolishing world poverty. And so it is. Aid buys influence, secures alliances and sometimes repays the donor in trade deals. This isn’t to decry it — the poor are often helped, too — but when Andrew Mitchell boasted recently of Britain becoming a “development superpower” he touched on the reality that aid is as much an instrument of self-interest as it is of charity. It can never be plainly advertised as such. That would sully the giving impulse with too obvious an ulterior motive. But the truth is that governments understand aid in a way that their electorates largely don’t: as a subtle agent of ‘soft power’ in an age when, for British governments at least, ‘hard power’ is on the wane. We can’t afford an aircraft carrier, but we can afford some schools in Bihar. That’s how the theory goes. Not everyone, including a hard-pressed military asked to fight wars in Libya and Afghanistan, is convinced.
Sailing across the Firth of Clyde the other day, we looked down from the ferry’s deck at one of the calmest seas any of us could remember. It lay flat under a bright sun with hardly a ripple — rare weather for western Scotland, where winds from the Atlantic rarely get much below a stiff breeze. We began to see jellyfish floating an inch or two under the surface: blue, red and yellow, small and large, all lazily trailing their vicious stings. The sight of a few jellyfish washed ashore on a Scottish beach isn’t unusual, but these went on for two or three miles: a gigantic shoal or ‘bloom’ that must have run into thousands. Climate change was an obvious explanation. As the cold seas around Britain get slightly warmer, all kinds of marine life have ventured further north, including a tropical turtle that was spotted this month in the Hebrides. Considering this, we decided that the jellyfish looked like an omen — the warning canary down the mine — and then forgot about them until we read a newspaper report, which showed that things were rather worse than we thought.
Nobody can be quite certain why jellyfish have exploded in such numbers. The explanations include over-fishing — tuna and sharks are among their few predators — as well as fertilizer run-off from agricultural land and warmer seas. The consequences, however, are much more dangerous than the stings to swimmers that sometimes result in death. According to research by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, quoted in the Guardian, jellyfish create a biomass with especially high levels of carbon that marine bacteria find hard to absorb and instead release as carbon dioxide, which makes the sea more acidic. Carol Turley, a scientist at Plymouth University's Marine Laboratory, said: “Oceans have been taking up 25 per cent of the carbon dioxide that man has produced over the last 200 years, so it’s been acting as a buffer for climate change. Already acidification is happening at a rate that hasn’t occurred in 600 million years.” The effect was so corrosive, Turley added, that unprotected shellfish would dissolve by 2050.
Jellyfish as a species are around 650 million years old. They were there long before clams, crabs, herring, hilsa, sharks and all the other brilliant products of the sea we can delight in watching or eating. First to come, it now looks as if they’ll be the last to go — brainlessly floating around oceans that are empty of everything else. History, you might say, with a sting in the tail.