Dominic Lawson: If India doesn't want it, why are we still giving them money?

David Cameron's decision to maintain our overseas aid budget was intensely political

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Democracy is meant to provide a nation with government which, more or less accurately, reflects the public will. It is obviously impossible to please all of the people all of the time; but if there is a settled popular view on a particular issue, the theory is that political parties dependent for their fortunes on elections had better not ignore it.

In practice, it does not always work out that way. Although the term "political elite" has been over-used of late, there are issues where there is indeed a sharp divide between the leadership of the political parties and the public they aspire to represent. One such was well illustrated by last week's episode of Question Time, the only BBC television programme in which politicians are regularly confronted with direct challenge from members of the public.

The question arose of the provisional decision of the Indian government to go to France for the purchase of 126 warplanes, rather than buy Typhoons from British Aerospace – even though Britain gives £280m a year in aid to India, six times more than supplied by any other country. The Tory minister of state at the Department for International Development, Alan Duncan, and the Labour shadow justice minister Sadiq Khan, were in harmonious agreement that this episode should not for one second cause us to question our aid programme to India – something that clearly astounded the studio audience.

In one sense, the politicians were right: tying aid to military contracts would be nothing more than a form of bribery (admittedly, standard local business practice across the sub-continent). On the other hand, since Andrew Mitchell, Duncan's boss, had said only in December that Britain's aid to India was partly about "seeking to sell Typhoon", it is obvious the Government had hoped to get some bangs off the back of our aid bucks on the grounds, presumably, that our co-opted taxpayers' largesse would have won us good favour in Delhi.

It was salutary, therefore, to read in the weekend's papers that the Indian finance minister had told the country's upper parliamentary house that "we do not require the aid [from Britain]. It is a peanut in our total development expenditure". The Sunday Telegraph also revealed – apparently via the contents of an official memo –  that the former head of the Indian foreign service, Nirupama Rao, had proposed "not to avail of any further Dfid assistance from April 2011... because of the negative publicity of Indian poverty promoted by Dfid". The paper further alleged that Delhi was warned that cancelling the aid would cause the British government "grave political embarrassment [because] British ministers had spent political capital justifying the aid to their electorate".

That certainly has the ring of truth (which does not, naturally, mean that it is true). David Cameron's decision to maintain and even increase our overseas aid budget, while cutting every other department apart from Health, was intensely political. Heavily advertised in the years ahead of the 2010 general election, the commitment was designed to persuade voters that the Conservatives were not hard-faced grinders of the poor, but actually possessed of a highly developed social conscience. It was, in other words, designed to make people "feel good" about voting Conservative, part of the strategy described as "decontamination of the Tory brand".

Alan Duncan, a formidably intelligent politician, is a dazzling example of this decontamination strategy in action. Back in 1995, he co-authored a radical tax-cutting libertarian manifesto, published in book form under the title Saturn's Children. Britain's overseas aid budget was then £2bn a year (compared with the £11bn that the current government proposes it should rise to by 2015); yet Duncan included it in his category of desirable public expenditure cuts of which "none can be made without howls of outrage from the vested interest which they affect".

It was fascinating last week to see Duncan, with characteristically articulate vehemence, communicate the outrage of the vested interest that is Dfid against someone who had the temerity to suggest that British taxpayers should not be expected to fund aid to a country with more billionaires than we will ever have, and which is proposing to buy – without need of borrowing – hundreds of warplanes to put on its soon-to-be three aircraft carriers (we can barely afford a single one).

The International Development Minister justified this expenditure during our own economic travails with an analogy, which (as television cooks might put it) he had clearly prepared earlier: "If you were down to your last £100, you would still want to give one pound to someone trapped in an earthquake". The analogy is valid in that one per cent of our public expenditure is allocated to Dfid. But it is also misleading: funding the extraction of people from buildings buried by earthquakes is the stuff of emergency appeals and quite separate from the development aid budget that Duncan is now professionally employed to defend.

More to the point, it would be a fine thing if the British exchequer were in surplus to the extent of £100. In fact, the national total for net public sector debt has just breached the £1 trillion figure. This year alone, according to the Treasury, Britain needs to find £47.6bn, just to service the interest payments on our debt.

So, in other words, the government believes we should borrow yet more money we don't have, to increase our development aid to a nation whose own economy is booming and whose government has asked us to stop sending them the cheques, because it has all become too embarrassing.

It is certainly true that there are more very poor people in India than there are in sub-Saharan Africa, and that if, by some miracle, our aid to Delhi actually reaches the pockets of those impoverished millions, rather than swallowed up by myriad middlemen, it could be justified as an act of well-intentioned charity. Yet among the most cogent objections to foreign aid programmes put by such people as Dambisa Moyo (author of Dead Aid) is that it tends to remove from the recipient governments the urgency of dealing with their own people's poverty; that in a sense we are infantilising such nations, just as we would be our own children if we continued to give them pocket-money when they had reached the age of 50.

The Indian government clearly understands that. It also seems to have got the message that the British government's programme of aid to its citizens is a combination of misplaced post-colonial noblesse oblige and a desire to look good on the international stage. I just hope our politicians do not insult their own electorate further by imagining that we do not see through it.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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