Monday, 6 February 2012

British Aid to India: Paternalism & Imperial Guilt


India's finance minister has done the UK a favour by stating the obvious: India does not need British aidWas there ever a clearer mandate to terminate unwanted and wasteful UK aid? Britain's public purse can't justify the expenditure; the political and economic benefits seem to be lacking; so why give away money for others to embezzle, squander, steal and siphon to pet projects?

The answer is, somewhat predictably, linked to Britain's imperial past, as former colonial master of the Indian subcontinent. More importantly, it highlights some critical misapprehensions in the way that Britain looks at the world today, which do it no favours.

India is a tiger economy, destined to be a regional superpower in the coming decades, second only to China in Asia. India boasts a costly space programme. It has thrown billions more rupees into its nuclear weapons arsenal. Surely there are better candidate countries for foreign aid? If India's government prioritises those policies above feeding its own poor, letting millions in slums starve below the poverty line, then why is that abrogation of responsibility transferred to foreign donors? 

Rate of return

Pranab Mukherjee told India's parliament that the £280m gifted by Britain to India per annum was "peanuts" and unwanted. It clearly isn't peanuts by UK or Indian standards: £1bn over the past five years, and a further £600m by 2015. This begs further questions. He also suggested that India had requested an end to the UK's generous aid package, but that the British had insisted on continuing to pay. More questions.

The crucial context is of course last week's announcement that France's Dassault Rafale aircraft is the "preferred bidder" for a multi-billion dollar deal to supply India with new fighter jets. It would seem that the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft costs more, and consequently is bidding at a disadvantage, despite howls of protest that Typhoon is the better aircraft. Powered by Rolls-Royce engines and with many more components built by UK defence giant BAE, a good deal of UK economic interest is bound up in the Typhoon order book. 

No deal has yet been signed, despite Nicolas Sarkozy postulating that the agreement radiates confidence in the flagging French economy, with typically insulting insinuations about Blighty's own bill of health. 

It doesn't help that the UK government's rationale for aid to India is muddied. Andrew Mitchell, UK development secretary, suggested that aid was "partly" about Typhoon. Seeing as France donates a paltry £19m per year in Indian aid, so far it seems UK giving as an investment strategy is flawed and generates a poor return.  

Those liberal doves that would justify an expensive aid budget on purely philanthropic grounds, amid tight fiscal austerity causing cutbacks to other areas of government spending, should concede that the India situation is ludicrous, as India throws its own money at big ticket projects that leave its poor neglected.

Britain's generous aid policy undoubtedly does some good in the world, when properly applied. In India's case it generates moral hazard. However Mukherjee might deride it, taking on the mantle of India's responsibility for its own poor also frees up its government to spend its own rupees on flash defence deals or economic prestige projects. It might suit India to claim the UK insists on giving it aid, embarrassing Britain and cockily suggesting it doesn't want or need it. However, if India is certain it will continue to receive aid, that posturing could be just another indicator of just how much the aid is taken for granted.

Paternalism

The historical context matters: Britain ruled India for over century. That does not translate into responsibility for India's modern domestic problems. History is shared, but Britain should not be morally shackled to the Raj, any more than modern India to bonds of empire. Imperialism was a logical consequence of how international rivalry functioned two centuries ago. Should Britain feel guilty about that? No. If the Mughal Empire had somehow industrialised and ascended above its contemporaries in trade, economic clout and military power, as Britain had by 1815, then it too - like all great powers of the era - would have become become the great coloniser, rather than the colonised.

The moralisers of the British Empire were not short on rationale for imperialism. Religion, enlightenment, free trade, the rule of law, and other British values, were cited as justifications for imperial expansion. Sympathetic historians call these cited motives "paternalism". Nowadays they come across as patronising or racist. But are we still seeing some complacent paternalism in Britain's attitude to its foreign aid, I wonder?

Sure, there is some straight-forward imperial guilt here: the desire to put right past colonial wrongs; and to maintain cordial relations as the respective balance of power graduates from one developed power towards an ascendant one. But is aid the best way to achieve atonement, cement economic ties and secure lasting diplomatic friendship? I think the social and cultural consequences of the twin legacies of Britain's empire and finally immigration from former colonies mean that Britain has a good hand to play towards all those factors. India, for its part, is an emerging market powerhouse that hands out more in overseas aid than it receives - mostly given out to further its own national interest in Africa.

It's not as though Britain and India have reversed bygone historical roles, but rather that they are both powerful countries in their own right. Although India's economy is booming, the UK economy - with its 60m people - remains bigger than India's by $GDP- despite its 1.2bn multitude.

Aid offers material comfort to its recipient, but beyond superficial altruism, beyond even supposed economic benefits, it offers feelings of righteousness and superiority to its donor. By its disproportionately generous charity to India, the UK reveals a certain patronising or arrogant tendency in its world view, by seeking to maintain a beguiling illusion that the paternalist relationships of old are still wanted or needed.