India told the UK last year that it could keep the foreign aid money Britain sends each year to its former imperial possession. According to the Telegraph, Pranab Mukherjee, India’s finance minister and the head of the powerful lower house of its parliament told the Brits bearing gifts: “It is a peanut in our total development exercises [expenditure]” and asked the Brits to keep their nuts to themselves.The response of the British foreign aid mandarins wasn’t to return the money (about £280 million per year or $440 million) to hard pressed British tax payers, use it to pay down the deficit or protect some agencies from budget cuts or even to regift it to some poorer, needier country than India where it might make a real difference.Instead, they begged the Indians to keep taking the aid money. It would be embarrassing, they said, to have it turned down. Not embarrassing internationally, mind you, but embarrassing domestically to the British politicians who rammed the aid through Parliament. The voters might think they were useless twits wasting taxpayer money on development projects so pointless that the recipients didn’t want them.Graciously, Mr. Mukherjee relented, and India pocketed the cash.Actually, a number of people in India pocketed the cash. An Indian government audit found that £70 million mysteriously vanished from a British-funded aid project. Another triumph of British aid cleverness:
Hundreds of thousands of pounds was spent on delivering more than 7,000 televisions to schools — most of which did not have electricity. Few of the televisions ever arrived. A further £44,000 of British aid was allegedly siphoned off by one project official to finance a movie directed by her son.
Britain is the largest donor of official bilateral aid to India; the second largest is our own dear Uncle Sugar.“Development” projects sometimes achieve significant results, but countries like India are rich enough and proud enough to undertake their own projects in their own way. Growing numbers of voices in the developing world are attacking the concept of government to government aid; for one thing, it tends to prop up elites and incumbents at the expense of opposition forces. For another, the objectives of these programs are often muddy, and the western world switches in and out of development fads with bewildering speed.As the world changes, models of “aid” that track back to the Cold War need to be rethought. Much of the “third world” is sophisticated and rich enough now to take care of its own affairs; many of the other countries are so badly governed and so corrupt that billions in aid can’t really help.There are good reasons why countries give aid to other countries, and Via Meadia thinks a scalpel rather than a hatchet is the best tool to take to the aid budget. Furthermore, there are some programs — like scholarships for foreign students to study in US universities — that greatly benefit Americans as well as the recipients. State Department exchanges that bring journalists and other opinion leaders from other countries to the US do a great deal of good.But when countries don’t want the money, we shouldn’t force it down their throats. The American ambassador to India should ask Mr. Mukherjee if US aid is as useless as Britain’s. If the answer is yes, let’s grit our teeth, live with the humiliation, and use the money for something else.