India’s lunar ascent shows absurdity of our dismal aid system

Published by The Times (24th August, 2023)

There was jubilation in India after it became the fourth country to successfully send a mission to the moon. The joy and deserved pride at seeing Chandrayaan-3 land near the south pole was all the sweeter for the ignominious crash of Moscow’s mission to revive its lunar landings after almost half a century.

This is a triumph for India and its cost-conscious space agency, which has already put a satellite into orbit around Mars and broken the record for satellites launched in a single mission. Narendra Modi, the prime minister, said this was a moment of shared endeavour for all humanity, but in reality it underscores his nation’s soaring global influence.

This country is rising fast on many fronts. Last year, India sped past Britain to become the world’s fifth-biggest economy and is predicted to overtake Germany and Japan by the end of this decade. It has become home to the planet’s third-highest number of billionaires, who include our own prime minister’s father-in-law, as it climbs the global rich list at its fastest pace in history amid widening inequality.

Yet watching that Indian mission touch down on the moon prompts a question for its former colonial master: why is Britain — laden with debt, suffering a severe post-Brexit hangover and struggling with creaking public services — pumping aid into Indian pockets?

The coalition government of David Cameron pledged to terminate aid to India by 2015. “We are walking the last mile,” said Andrew Mitchell, who was then aid minister and has since returned to the post, after India’s finance minister sparked a spat by rightly dismissing our donations as “a peanut” in development terms and saying they were not needed.

Instead, the cash kept on flowing. A report earlier this year by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact showed that Britain spent another £2.3 billion on aid to India over the five years to 2021, making it the 11th-biggest recipient of our handouts. Yet even this toothless watchdog condemned the “lack of coherence and absence of strong development rationale”. And it criticised the failure to support democracy, free expression and human rights amid backsliding from Modi’s government.

Only days after Chandrayaan-3 was launched in July, the Foreign Office’s annual report revealed handouts will jump another 70 per cent next year to a nation that has a bigger economy than our own and even has its own aid agency doling out billions. We are, of course, pushing for a free-trade deal. Yet the lunar landing shows the supine absurdity of Britain’s dismal aid system as well as India’s impressive rise.

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