Don’t listen to the sceptics – India’s poorest will die without our aid

Anas Sarwar, Labour MP for Glasgow Central and a member of the international development select committee, explains why we very much need to continue giving aid to India.

Anas Sarwar MP (Labour, Glasgow Central) is a member of the international development select committee

There has been recent controversy over the government’s decision to continue its aid programme to India. Some argue that as India is the fourth largest economy in the world, with a space programme and an aid programme of its own, it should not receive support from the UK, particularly at a difficult time for our own economy.

Yet these bare facts do not tell the whole story.

I have recently returned from India with the international development select committee, as part of our inquiry into the UK’s aid relationship with the sub-continent.

We visited the poorest states in India, including Bihar and Madhya Pardesh, where we met with key state government and central government figures and visited many aid programmes that the Department for International Development (DFID) funds both bilaterally and through multi-lateral organisations like the World Bank.

What I saw and heard in India convinced me that the government was right to take the difficult decision to continue its programme in India. I also agree that it is right to concentrate DFID’s work in the poorest states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa and to look towards greater involvement for the private sector.

This does not mean I do not have concerns; I do, which I will outline later.

India is a place of extremes. It has a fast-growing economy, yet is also home to a third of the world’s poor (source: World Bank). Half of these – more than 300 million people – live in the country’s five poorest states, where progress towards the Millennium Development Goals is slow and hindered by complex social issues, poor infrastructure and weak government (source: Oxford Development Initiative: India Country Briefing; pdf).

India’s income per capita is 1/20th that of the UK; 456 million people live on less than $1.25 a day; 1.83 million children under five die every year; and India accounts for 1/5th of all maternal deaths globally (sources: World Bank, UNICEF).

Yes, India has a space programme, but let’s be clear: this isn’t some mission to get Indians on Mars. It includes investment in satellite technology to improve its telecommunications system, set up a GPRS system and to track weather patterns to help with early detection of severe weather. This is real development, helping to grow India’s economy, create employment and promote growth as well as protecting citizens.

The Indian government has made significant progress in improving the lives of its poorest citizens, however its poorest states continue to need our support and expertise if they are to be pulled out of persistent poverty.

In Bihar, I was struck by the number of powerful women who were leading the fight for change in their villages, cities, state and country. One of the success stories are “Anganwadi” centres for nutrition and sanitation, where a trained health worker looks after a local population of 1,000, providing health advice and outreach services particularly targeted to children and mothers.

It is right that DFID focuses on the poorest states, but it must also focus on the most pressing problems. In the rural areas of India approximately 70% of people still openly defecate (source: World Health Organisation and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme).

This leads to a number of health problems, harms education and has specific risks for women. Poor access to water is a related issue – even those with a toilet don’t want to use it as they don’t want to “waste water”. Yet only 1% of the DFID budget for India is allocated to sanitation (source: International Development Select Committee Inquiry into British Aid to India; pdf).

Looking to the future, Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell has said that by 2015, 50% of DFID spending in India will be in the private sector. This is both an opportunity and a risk. An opportunity because it is quite clear that if India is to lift millions out of poverty and continue to grow it will need a huge rise in the private sector, alongside investment in the public sector – particularly in poorer states.

The risk is the impact this will have on brand DFID. At the moment, DFID is recognised around the world for its work and its no-strings-attached grant and programme support. The notion that DFID could directly make investments and look for returns is a cause for concern.

It is clear that India is a country on the rise. USAID has said India doesn’t need money; it needs expertise and our expertise costs money. The question is whether, post-2015, the UK sells its expertise or donates it.

The international development select committee’s report on The Future of DFID’s Programme in India can be read here (pdf).

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37 Responses to “Don’t listen to the sceptics – India’s poorest will die without our aid”

  1. Knut Cayce

    Don't listen to the sceptics – India's poorest will die without our aid: writes @AnasSarwar

  2. Chris Jordan

    Don't listen to the sceptics – India's poorest will die without our aid: writes @AnasSarwar

  3. Shamik Das

    India: GDP 1/20th the UK's; 456m live on under $1.25/day; 1.83m under 5 die a yr; 1/5th of all maternal deaths globally:

  4. Beth Misenhimer

    Don't listen to the sceptics – India's poorest will die without our aid

  5. India Travel Fun

    Don't listen to the sceptics – India's poorest will die without our aid – Left Foot Forward

  6. Erica

    Don't listen to the sceptics – India's poorest will die without our aid: In the rural areas of India approximate…

  7. John

    Great points here! I’d like to include the following to strengthen your arguments:

    1. Many countries, which the UK gives aid to, also have space programs, such as China, South Africa, and Nigeria.

    2. Many countries which are UK aid recipients are “nuclear powers” such as China and Pakistan. Unlike India, these regimes are hostile to the UK.

    3. Concerning corruption, while corruption does occur in India, India does very well vis-a-vis other developing countries. According to Transparency International, India’s Corruption Perceptions Index (2010) is 3.3 (higher is better), compared to Pakistan (2.3), Bangladesh (2.4), Nepal (2.2), Afghanistan (1.4), and Sri Lanka (3.2). China is comparable at 3.5, while Russia is much worse at 2.1.

    I think that many newspapers, such as The Mail and The Telegraph have singled out India for no reason other than prejudice. Why the UK considers India less worthy of aid than an African or Chinese person tends to reflect deep seated prejudice in the West toward South Asians. Go to your next church gathering or NGO meeting: they won’t be discussing development issues for Indians, Nepalis, Bangladeshis, etc. Even though there are nearly 2 billion South Asians, since Bono and Bill Clinton don’t acknowledge they exist, then they must not exist…

  8. Robert

    That’s up to the Indian Government mate not up to me, if India is so rich to allow fuel like Petrol to be held so low, if you can send rockets into space or as you lot said plant a man on the moon, buy the top jet fighters buy modern weapons, then you should look after your poor .

    Times are hard I’m disabled with a serious spinal injury I will soon be within the worse poverty of my life, we are already struggling to pay our way, and sadly people will die in India, but my socialist feeling and my ideals have been battered like hell listening to Miliband this week.

    Like it or not the fact is simple everyone should look after their own.

  9. Pinky

    Don't listen to the sceptics – India's poorest will die without our aid: writes @AnasSarwar

  10. Chris

    Thank you for this, I’d always struggled expressing why India was a deserving case, not being all that familiar with the country. This sets it out in a very persuasive way.

  11. Clare Fernyhough

    I think many of us, especially those who fully support overseas aid and do what we can personally, feel very conflicted about this issue at the moment.

    I understand about the space programme and how the treatment of the poor has improved in India, but I watched ‘Question Time’ last week and was quite shocked to learn that India give away around the same amount that we give them in aid to other countries; I’m sorry, but that cannot be right.

    Similar to Robert above, I am chronically disabled and I am facing homelessness within the next 5 years if the Welfare Reform Bill is not altered. There will be millions facting the same throughout the UK, both the working poor, the unemployed and the disabled.

    With the localism bill removing the obligation for local authorities to address homeless we’ll have our own humanitarian crisis. We’ll be a laughing stock throughout the world because of our overseas aid programme then. Give aid by all means, but not whilst impoverishing your own country and giving money away to those who then give it away to others.

  12. Ed's Talking Balls

    Stating that the UK gives aid to other countries with space programs, nuclear capability and higher levels of corruption is hardly a convincing argument for continuing to give aid to India.

    Besides, I was under the impression that aid was no longer being given to China and Russia (

  13. Beth Misenhimer

    Don't listen to the sceptics – India's poorest will die without …

  14. Paul (Reading, Berkshire)

    I have recently returned from Tamil Nadu, where we sponsor two school-age girls. We went to visit them. Their father has died of AIDS. Their mother is dying of AIDS. When she can, she gets ‘coolie work’ in the fields for a dollar or so a day. There is no other family income. The mother smiles all the time – despite everything, she is a good person, just down on her luck.

    The family of 3 live in something smaller than a garden shed made of palm leaves. The floor is mud and rocks. The mother has a camp cot. The girls sleep on the floor. In the hut there is a plastic suitcase. All the family’s posessions pack into it, because when it rains the hut floods. We took the girls to buy shoes – the first new pair they had owned.

    Why do I say this – well all things are relative. I do not dispute that things are bad for some people in the UK, but there are shades of bad and differences in scale. There are more than 400 million people like ‘my’ girls in India.

    Everyone deserves a certain minimum standard of living and, if possible, a chance to better themself. What we have to do for India is to do something for those in severe need and to show the way for the rising Indian middle class, who will need to show philanthropy when they are able.

    Whatever we can do as individuals, we should. Whether it is helping people in UK or helping people in India – they are all people.

    Have a look at if you want to help.

  15. AnasSarwar

    Read my article for @leftfootfwd. Tackling the myths – why the Government is right to give aid to India.

  16. yorkierosie

    Read my article for @leftfootfwd. Tackling the myths – why the Government is right to give aid to India.

  17. Alison McGovern

    Read my article for @leftfootfwd. Tackling the myths – why the Government is right to give aid to India.

  18. Jo Cox

    Read my article for @leftfootfwd. Tackling the myths – why the Government is right to give aid to India.

  19. Aaaaargh!

    Excellent article – I hadn’t realised the communications uses for the space development and that makes sense…. but it doesn’t explain how it makes sense for India to be giving aid to other countries.

    I’ve been to (so called) third world countries and until you’ve seen it first hand rather than on a TV screen you can’t understand what poverty is.

    Having said that, why don’t we cut the aid budget but let them use our existing technology for communications, weather tracking etc – the cost to us would be less, the savings they would make would probably be more than our reduction and could be ploughed back into their poorer areas, probably with a nett increase.

  20. rightfootforward

    A side effect of providing aid is to encourage population growth, and this is simply stupid for a severely overpopulated planet being rapidly stripped of it’s resources. And India does have rather a lot of billionares as well.

  21. John

    Ed’s Talking Balls:

    I don’t think you understand the issues here, you seem to be missing the point about the nuclear program/space program. If it isn’t important when determining aid, then why do the Daily Mail and the Telegraph consistently pointing it out and saying that India shouldn’t receive aid because it has a nuclear / space program?

    As I also pointed out, Pakistan and Nigeria have nuclear / space programs respectively. This never entered into the equation for giving aid to these countries. Why is it relevant with India only? As well, why is it that there was never this debate about China and Russia? I never once saw the Daily Mail / Telegraph / Express / Guardian, even though both of these countries are openly hostile to the UK. They also have higher living standards (Russia actually has higher corruption as measured by the CPI) but I never saw any criticism of them approaching what the British media is doing toward India.

    rightfootforward: try looking up “Malthusian fallacy” and “demographic transition theory.” Your overpopulation rhetoric has been debunked decades ago.

  22. Ed's Talking Balls


    With respect, I think it is you who has misunderstood the issue, or at least the point I was making.

    I believe that a country’s nuclear capacity and space programs are highly relevant when determining aid. Presumably, The Daily Mail and The Telegraph share that view, hence why they bring it up in their articles on the aid budget. It is pertinent that a country which can afford such luxuries have sufficient funds to alleviate the plight of its poor citizens. The onus should be on them to do it.

    Yes, you did point out that Pakistan and Nigeria have nuclear capacity and space programs, but I’m not sure what that adds to the debate. It is relevant in determining whether we should be giving those countries aid in much the same way as it is a relevant consideration when looking at aid we give to India. I would guess that the reason India is mentioned more than the others is because it is a more obvious example: having so many billionaires was always going to make good headlines in the tabloids.

    Further, there was this debate with China and Russia, hence (as I pointed out above) aid shall no longer go to these rich countries. India appears to be the anomaly among these strong economies. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Russia has high levels of corruption (they are hosting the World Cup in 2018, after all…) but why do you bring it up? We’re no longer going to be giving aid to Russia and, even if we were, the fact that Russia has more corruption than India is certainly no argument in favour of giving aid to India.

    You’re right that media coverage of aid issues was not so extensive before, but are you genuinely surprised that it’s in the spotlight now? Our politicians are inexplicably ringfencing the aid budget while offering no such security to a host of other worthy causes, such as education and defence. Further, all this comes at a time of domestic austerity.

    The headlines are entirely predictable and, in my view, justified. The government will have to do a lot better in its defence of the policy than sending out Andrew Mitchell to tell us that Britain is an aid superpower.

  23. AnasSarwar

    @WaterAid IDC Aid to India report: sanitation needs to be given a much higher priority in the UK’s aid programme

  24. Padmakumar Rao

    Comment by Ed’s Talking Balls:
    India’s budget for its space program is 0.08% of its GDP (~1 Billion dollars). Compare that to Europe’s 14 Billion dollars or America’s 18 Billion! As has been mentioned in the article, these space programs are mainly used for weather and communication purposes. These satellites and platforms have been successfully employed in various reconnaissance missions as well. Plus, revenue is generated by launching satellites very economically for other countries as well as amateur/micro-satellites developed by school/university students. Weather satellites are used for predicting the monsoon, which is very important for a country like India which is still an agrarian economy. Educational satellites bring news and information to students and the rural poor.
    India set a record by launching 12+ satellites in a go which saw participation of students internationally; even from Europe. Even with a shoe-string budget, India was able to launch a craft to moon and detect water in the moon’s surface, which changed the way in which we understood the moon.
    Some of these satellites are used for defense purposes as well. Remember, there can be no government or citizen without a country! Protecting the country is very important especially since India has very hostile neighbors. By the way, India spends ~2% of its GDP on defense.
    Now where does all the money for the space mission go? No, the Indian government does not burn the budgetary cash in a huge bonfire! These missions employ tens of thousands of people and the money trickles down the socio-economic hierarchy. Many educational institutions also cooperate in important space missions. Laborers are needed in plentiful for such huge missions. So, the governmental money trickles down to its own citizens. Spending increases opportunities.
    Now tell me, does India not need a space program? A prudent socio-economic plan caters to the development of people across the socio-economic hierarchy. It is not a wise plan to ONLY focus on the poor’s needs.

  25. Ed's Talking Balls

    I don’t think it’s useful to compare apples and pears: Europe is a continent, not a country like India, while I’m not concerned by what America spends on its space program since we do not send aid there.

    I’m not criticising India’s space program per se, nor, incidentally, have I remarked on how useful it is. It’s entirely India’s prerogative how it spends its own money.

    I am, however, concerned with how our government spends our money. I feel that India, like China and Russia, has GDP sufficient to cater for its population’s needs. There are more worthy recipients of British aid than one of the richest nations on Earth, in my view.

    As for the trickle down effect of a space program, I’m sceptical that the benefits you state will reach those at the very bottom of the ladder, i.e. those whom Andrew Mitchell claims we are helping currently. I would expect that job opportunities for engineers and astronauts, in particular, would go to the skilled workforce in urban areas.

    Lastly, although you state that the space program is used mainly for weather and communication purposes, and the author quips that this is not about getting Indians to Mars, a quick glance at Wikipedia revealed that ‘The Indian Space Research Organisation had begun preparations for a mission to Mars’ and ‘The space agency was looking at launch opportunities between 2013 and 2015’. Further, the ‘ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) has already been sanctioned $21.1 million to study all aspects of the manned space mission, which will involve a two-member Indian crew spending a week in space’.

    I found that very interesting.

  26. RhianLewis

    @WaterAid IDC Aid to India report: sanitation needs to be given a much higher priority in the UK’s aid programme

  27. dexter73

    People living below the poverty line are distributed around the UK as follows:

    Distribution of people living below the poverty line

    ■England – 11,615,000, or 23% of the English population;
    ■Scotland – 969,000, or 19% of the Scottish population;
    ■Wales – 667,000, or 23% of the Welsh population;
    ■Northern Ireland – 374,000, or 2% of the Northern Irish population.

    Maybe UK should ask aid from India or China!

  28. Reetesh Srivastava

    I live in India and everywhere I see corruption, its so pervasive that even the smallest work required to be done by any government agency has some graft alement attached to it, which can be as high as 75%. I am not sure that the money which UK government sends as aid to India is actually used for the desired purpose. I would suggest that even if they reduce the aid, they should tie up with good NGOs in India (those whose financials etc are in place) so that all the aid reaches the people for whom it is meant. As far as comparisons of poverty of two countries is concerned, there is no comparison, the absolute poor in India live close to sub human lives. Something which can improve this aid disbursement is publishing the amount of aid given with the date and the purpose involved on a website which can be seen by anyone. Also what was finally done with the aid and which agencies used it.

  29. dexter73

    UK is highly experienced and there are tough safegaurds as to where and how the money is used, for instance subsidies on vaccines. Polio has (or nearly)been wiped off the sub-continet thanks to the popular vaccination program.

  30. Asha Buch

    I am proud to be an Indian for all its rich culture and social norms. I am ashamed of it’s status as the forth largest economy, as it does not reach to more than half the population
    India does not need monitory aid or experts to run the aid programme, she needs to go back to her roots and practice how to share her wealth equally.

  31. Ed's Talking Balls

    Well said, Reetesh and Asha.

  32. Kate Norgrove

    @WaterAid IDC Aid to India report: sanitation needs to be given a much higher priority in the UK’s aid programme

  33. End Water Poverty

    @WaterAid IDC Aid to India report: sanitation needs to be given a much higher priority in the UK’s aid programme

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  35. Emily farnham

    @WaterAid IDC Aid to India report: sanitation needs to be given a much higher priority in the UK’s aid programme

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    Don't listen to the sceptics – India's poorest will die without our aid: writes @AnasSarwar

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