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An Aid Memoir

Message From a Bleeding Heart

by BRIAN CLOUGHLEY

47% of young children in India are malnourished, and up to a third of the world’s undernourished children are Indian.

United Nations Children’s Fund, 2011

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says India has the highest number of poor in the world. Some 42% of its 1.21 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day.

BBC News December 7, 2011

India had 153,000 millionaires at the end of 2010, putting it in 12th position in a list of countries with the most millionaires.

Report by Capgemini and Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, June 2011 

The British Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, declared that the aim of British Aid to India was partly “about seeking to sell Typhoon [combat aircraft]”.

UK Daily Telegraph, February 4, 2012 

OK, so I’m a bleeding heart. But anyone who has lived in parts of the world that are plunged in poverty and seen so many fellow human beings enduring hopeless lives of deprivation, distress and squalor has reason to be a bleeding heart. Very few people from wealthy nations actually see people in such terrible conditions, and it can be heart-rending to do so.

Here are just two tiny examples of what I mean:

The first scene is a traffic junction in a slum in Karachi, Pakistan, at which I’m stopped in my car. There has been a recent rain shower and in the gutter is a pool of oily water, glinting like a grubby ground-bound rainbow.  Beside the road is a vendor of sugar cane, and he chops and strips a piece and gives it to a skeletal beggar who bends down and swishes it round in the fetid slick of greasy muck.  The beggar thinks that all water is clean.

Next, I’m in a train in India, travelling from Amritsar to Delhi, and wake in the morning after a night in a comfortable sleeping compartment and look out when the train is stopped and on a stretch of litter-strewn muddy ground there is a tiny naked child, hardly more than a baby, lying flat and slurping water from a putrid pool. The infant thinks that all water is clean.

But very few rich people in either of these countries know or care about the plight of those of their fellow citizens who suffer in such depths of hideous deprivation and fatal ignorance.  Some foreigners care, but sometimes it seems their well-meaning efforts to help may be neither appreciated or effective. And in some cases, alas, their aid is given with the motive of making a profit for their weapons manufacturers, which is not only bizarre but repulsive.

In principle and practice, however, the giving of aid around the world is a critical affair.  It is essential that rich nations contribute a portion of their wealth to less fortunate countries in order to help so many poor people who lack even the most basic facilities. Many of us cannot imagine the appallingly squalid existence of so many millions who live without fresh water, without sanitation, without enough food, without medical care, without assistance from their (usually majestically corrupt) governments and bureaucracies — and without any hope whatever for improvement in the limited span of their wretched lives.

Foreign assistance in cash, material and practical guidance is enormously important to countless millions of people, and the international and single-nation organizations involved in managing the aid process in so many countries are in the main saintly and deserving of our praise and support. They do a wonderful job and are quite rightly appreciated by those who benefit from their efforts  — and by those, like me, who stand on the sidelines applauding and occasionally giving a coin or two.

As recorded by poverty.com “In September 2000, the 189 countries of the United Nations unanimously agreed to ‘spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty,’ in particular hunger and the ‘major diseases that afflict humanity’.”  What a laudable agreement that was, to be sure. Who could possibly vote against such a heart-warming Resolution? Even if we bear in  mind that citizens of the US and Europe spend 17 billion dollars a year on supermarket pet food.

But some of us think that many countries receiving aid should try to do a bit more — and in some cases a lot more —  to sort out their own affairs.  Why should Britain, for example, a declining country with enormous economic problems, of which the most dire are domestic poverty and an obscenely horrendous gap between rich and poor, send cash to countries that are so much more successful than it is on the world scale of economic progress?

The recent furor concerning Britain’s aid to India was caused by the revelation that the latter’s finance minister, the civilized and most competent Mr Pranab Mukherjee, said a year ago that India doesn’t want London’s money and described British aid as “a peanut in our total development expenditure”, which it undoubtedly is. The amount involved is about $2 billion over the next four years, which is a lot of money to normal people, but in fact a tiny drop in a very large bucket when considering India’s expenditure on, for example, its space program.  Britain can’t afford a space program, and will never have one. But last year, India’s ambitious and effective Space Research Organization was given $1.5 billion by the government, and future annual allocations will have to grow enormously in order to pay for projects being planned, including a mission to Mars in 2015.  It is difficult to see how a Mars mission could ever benefit the half billion Indians who exist in wretched poverty, but there is another side to the story.

In June last year the Wall Street Journal had an intriguing piece on “How India’s Super-Rich Spend Their Money, in which it was stated that India has “about 62,000 super-rich households, with a total wealth of around $1 trillion.”  Apparently they “spend heavily on jewellery and precious stones including three-carat solitaires. The luxury jewellery market is estimated to be worth $5.1 billion” while “a study from Citi Private Bank and Knight Frank said that Indians lead the world’s millionaires in wanting to spend on yachts and private jets.”

India has 150,000 millionaires, and Priya Subramanian of Save the Children observes that “While we have a new band of millionaires, on the other side people continue to suffer endlessly. Millions still live below the poverty line and go to sleep hungry. Economic growth has not flowed towards them.”  No, indeed; because enormous amounts of money go to absurd extravaganzas like Formula One motor racing, which makes vast profits for all sorts of well-fed people but doesn’t benefit the poor by a single rupee.

Perhaps the most paradoxical and unamusing thing about India’s aid is that it gives Afghanistan about the same amount as it receives from Britain.  And the British government is wasting billions in Afghanistan, as well as sacrificing the lives of its soldiers in a stupid and pointless war.

The most depressing aspect of British policy regarding aid to India is the declaration that its aim is not focused on relieving poverty so much as being geared to obtaining some sort of commercial preference.  For example, it was reported that “The British Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, declared that the aim of British Aid was partly ‘about seeking to sell Typhoon’,” to India.  Now the Typhoon is a pretty good aircraft, but  not, to any reasonable, decent, mind, a proper target to aim for in the aid system.  When a country declares that its commitment to poverty alleviation has a commercial objective there is something sadly wrong with its national ethos.

But then, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that “Malini Mehra of an Indian anti-poverty pressure group, the Centre for Social Markets, said aid was “entirely irrelevant” to the country’s real problems, which she said were the selfishness of India’s rich and the unresponsiveness of its institutions.”

On balance, however, I have to endorse British  and all other foreign aid to India, if only because there is no intention on the part of the Indian mega-rich to help their fellow citizens. The Brits are amoral and avaricious in their approach, and probably others are, too, but at least there is some cash being given that might go in the right direction.  And even if the foreign politicians’ policies are nauseating, there are international Aid people on the ground who try their best to help the people who most need their ministrations. Bless them all.

The Indian government isn’t going to lift many fingers to help the poor, no matter how much they trot out statistics to try to prove otherwise. It’s easy to blame the ruling coalition government in Delhi, and any of its predecessors, for failing so many hundreds of millions of people, but one has to bear in mind that most of the poor don’t vote (just as in western countries — so what western government really gives a damn about its wretched underclass?), or if they do, it’s to the orders of the local landowners or other biggies who either buy votes for a few paisa or have their heavies come along to make sure the pathetic untermenschen form up and finger the ballot paper in the correct manner.

International aid to India is enormously important to its hundreds of millions of hopeless and helpless poor.  Certainly, it’s a lousy business, and lots of filthy people make a lot of money from it.  Dubai, for example, is full of vulgar villas built with cash intended to improve the lives of little babies who slurp filthy water.  But it’s better to continue it than stop it.

Yours, with a Bleeding Heart,

Brian Cloughley

Brian Cloughley’s website is www.beecluff.com