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I wish people understood ‘aid’ better

United Kingdom

Haritha, a pupil, and her mother look at a map of England in a Chennai classroom. UK Department for International Development under a Creative Commons Licence

This week the British government announced that it was ending official aid to India. This is a mistake, argues Maggie Black.

India has the largest number of extremely poor people in the world – 300 million – and more hungry people than all of Africa.

India also has a large number of billionaires enjoying stratospheric wealth. It always has had; witness many a Maharajah’s palace. India has always known incredible extremes of wealth and poverty. Yes, it may have nuclear weapons, but it also has sweepers: people who handle others’ shit for a living. Yes, it has Bollywood superstars, but it also has girl domestics aged 10 living in slavery.

India’s wealth and economic prowess justify our abandonment of aid. But although rich Indians – and even some activist Indians – would prefer not to be cast as ‘aid’ supplicants, there is no way they will step in and do the useful things aid does.

Aid does not substitute for government funds. Such an idea is ridiculous since every Indian state is vast, containing as many people as, say, England. The tiny amount of aid compared to any Indian state budget is unimaginably microscopic. This does not mean it can’t be hugely influential.

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Take the example of school sanitation. Having decent toilet blocks in schools has not been a priority in a country whose public facilities consist of disgusting little enclosures whose floors run with excrement that sweepers remove.

Recently, it became clear that girls were removed from school at puberty because there was nowhere clean, or safe, for them to go to the toilet. So if girls were to get an education, toilets had to be built and schools become clean and respectable places.

Initially as a pilot, an international aid organization, with NGO and British aid support, developed a school sanitation programme. Model facilities and a regime of ‘clean school’ and personal hygiene was designed. When everything was working well, the model was taken up and rolled out state-wide, and later nationwide.

For a modest amount of ‘aid’, a school sanitation programme which might keep girls in school had been set in motion throughout the entire Indian sub-continent. Over time – such a process takes many years – there will be hiccups. Will every contract between District Education Office and Toilet Block Builder be corruption-free? No. Will every parent now believe her daughter’s virginity is safe in school? No. But a huge transformation is possible.

A respected Indian professional, working in the local state office of UNICEF, was mainly responsible for developing the initial programme, with colleagues in the state administration and local schools. She was therefore invited to Delhi to help lay down national specifications for construction of school toilet blocks. Imagine the millions and millions of toilet blocks which should thereafter conform to this design. Being India, not all will do so, but that is another matter.

Because she was present and insisted, incinerators for used menstrual cloths were included as standard components of girls’ toilet block design. Her own standing, and that of UNICEF, meant that the otherwise all-male National Sanitation Committee accepted this idea.

Now tell me that giving aid to India is pointless. That aid may be the key input that ensures that a major social improvement, enlarging girls’ prospects of education, is adopted as national policy.

This is far from being the only example of its kind. I do wish that people, including the British government, understood aid better.

For more on the aid to India debate, see our debate between NGO director Jamal Kidwai and activist and writer Praful Bidwai.

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