Saturday, May 31, 2008

In The Shower With Evan


After the shower


There’s nothing like a cold morning shower with Evan Davis to get the old cranial juices flowing.

But of course, there’s always the worry that right there in the shower, you might not be able to summon up the appropriate response until the moment has passed. Thus it was that the Bloke didn’t come up with the right snappy answers to Evan’s Today questions until some time after the programme had ended. Still, for future reference, here they are:

Question: It’s spurious to suggest that we should cut aid to India just because its economy is huge. Yes, it may be the fourth largest economy in the world, 50% larger than the UK’s, and growing by 8-9% pa, but given that it’s got 1.1 billion people to support, isn’t your argument crap?

Answer: No, because even with that population, India is no longer on the world’s breadline. According to the UN, Indian per capita GDP is already above $3,000 pa, which is five to six times higher than in the world’s really poor countries (eg Malawi, Somalia and Ethiopia all have per capita incomes of around $600pa). India is now quite rich enough to provide for its own people.

Question: But if you follow that line of argument, you end up putting all your aid into the very poorest countries, whereas you might be able to achieve a lot more by putting some of it into worthwhile projects in less poor countries.

Answer: Sorry Evan, was that a question or an assertion? First, there is very little evidence that our government aid bureaucrats have the ability to pick winners in that way. From the Groundnuts Scheme on, the history of aid is littered with waste and unintended consequences. The charity Action Aid estimates that half of the aid never reaches the poor.

Second, the taxpayers who are funding Britain’s £5bn pa of aid spending have been led to understand it’s for humanitarian relief in countries that can’t help themselves. In India – which by the way is our largest aid recipient – it turns out the money is being spent on things far removed from straightforward relief. They even include projects aimed at radicalising Indian citizens to stand up for themselves against their own democratically elected government. Is that something we want to be paying our taxes for?

Underlying your argument is the Big Government approach to welfare: the idea that governments know best, and given enough money they can build a better world. Many of us are very sceptical about that line. Even if we accept that it’s appropriate to fund overseas charity from taxation – and not everyone does – it should be no more than a safety net. We should focus our cash on basic humanitarian relief for basket case economies and disasters.

Question: As a member of the TaxPayers Alliance, how can you be in favour of higher taxes in India? Or is it that you only want low taxes here?

Answer: Good question Evan. Now let me see… ah, yes, WTF should we have to pay taxes so that rich Indians don’t have to? WTF don’t they support their own poor?

****

Cards on the table – until Tuesday, I knew virtually nothing of Britain’s aid to India. I only looked into it because I was emailed by a BOM correspondent (Liam H). He highlighted the fact that despite being recipients of large wodges of UK cash for poverty relief (£2bn in 8 years), the Indian government can somehow find plenty of cash to ramp up its own defence spending. So I did some digging and blogged it.

By a very strange coincidence (?), at exactly the same time, Denis MacShane highlighted virtually the same issue in his lower taxes article for the Telegraph. He asked why are we sending all that money to a country with more billionaires and millionaires than we’ve got?

So why are we? Really.

Having had my mind concentrated in the shower, and having also heard from the spokesman for Christian Aid (who BTW, wasn’t asked any hard ball questions), I think I now understand the real reason we’re still sending all this tax money to India: our aid establishment doesn’t trust the Indians. Despite the fact that the Indian government has been democratically elected, and despite the fact that it’s presiding over one of the most spectacular economic booms in history, DfID believes it’s failing. It reckons India still needs help and support from the Mother Country or it won’t run its own internal affairs properly.

What an extraordinarily patronising view. Such attitudes may have been acceptable when we still carried the White Man’s Burden, but it’s been a while since the Raj shuffled off into the sunset. No wonder they’re so mealy mouthed about their real reason behind the aid.

I stick by my original view that this is a poor use of British taxpayers’ money. But more than that, I now think this is not in the long-term interests of India. Nationally, they have the money to feed their own poor, and the longer we collude in their failure to do so, the longer the situation continues. Domestically, we call it welfare dependency.

****

The Bloke can’t say he wasn’t warned. As soon as he was invited onto the Today programme, the Major advised against it:

“Don’t do it old son. Snatching food from the mouths of the poor? They’ll stitch you up like a kipper. You’re on a hiding to nothing. As we always used to say in the Regiment, never fight your battles on the enemy’s terms. That BBC economist chappie is a rabid communist – he’ll eat you for breakfast. They're all communists on the BBC. Take my word for it - you’re the sacrificial middle-age middle-class white bloke, and they’ll burn you at the stake. You’re toast.”

The Bloke looked bemused. “Sorry Major – you’re mixing so many metaphors I can’t quite follow what you’re saying. Anyway, he’s surely not a communist – he’s a seeker after truth, like me.”

The Major sadly shook his head. “Damned fool,” he murmured, diluting his Indian Tonic with another healthy splash of Gordons.

PS Mrs T and I are still in the West Country and for various reasons unable to access BOM comments. I'll respond to them when we return.

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