• Monday, March 27, 2023


UK aid to India overlooks human rights and democracy, says watchdog

British PM Rishi Sunak and Indian PM Narendra Modi in Bali, Indonesia. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

By: Shubham Ghosh

In a finding that could stir up a row, the UK government’s aid watchdog has claimed that the country’s assistance programme to India is “fragmented” and “lacks a compelling development rationale” and does little to address the negative aspects in human rights and democracy in the south Asian nation.

According to a report by The Guardian, the findings could be used by those who are of the viewpoint that London uses its aid programme to better ties with India, including seeking free-trade pacts, instead of trying to reduce poverty — the statutory purpose of the country’s aid.

A review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) said between 2016 and 2021, the UK government spent £2.7 billion on aid to India, including the provision of loans by the state-run British International Investment (BII) to mainly smaller companies.

Overall, loans to India represent 28 per cent of the BII global loan portfolio.

According to the review, “the overall programme is fragmented across activities and spending channels and lacks a compelling development rationale”, particularly since India already has financial markets that are relatively developed.

It also says that the UK does not use its aid plan, enshrined in a joint roadmap inked by it and India in 2021, to help Indian democracy and human rights, despite allegations of backsliding in those areas in the era of prime minister Narendra Modi.

The UK does not use its aid programme, enshrined in a joint roadmap signed by India and the UK in 2021, to support Indian democracy and human rights, despite backsliding in this area under the premiership of Narendra Modi, the review says.

“To explain the limited activity on democracy and human rights, Foreign Office officials noted India’s acute sensitivity to any external influence in its political affairs, particularly from the UK. They acknowledged that the UK and India have different perspectives in this area and described the roadmap as being based on shared interests, rather than shared values. They informed us that the UK engages in ‘quiet diplomacy’ on issues such as freedom of speech,” the ICAI review group reported, according to the news outlet.

On the issue of human rights, the report finds that the 2021 roadmap setting out the UK and India’s joint cooperation goals “does not include any objectives related to the promotion of democracy or human rights in India”.

It also adds that “the UK has not been particularly active in India in this area in recent years, either in its aid programme or in its public diplomacy”.

“There is little or no programming related to democratic space, free media or human rights. UK funding for Indian NGOs working on civil society issues has been largely discontinued. In fact, internal UK documents reviewed by ICAI suggest that behind-the-scenes diplomacy in this area is also quite limited. A number of Indian NGOs we consulted for this review expressed concerns that the UK was prioritising good relations with the Indian government over human rights,” the report added, according to The Guardian.

The report also said that it is not convinced that BII’s large India portfolio is strongly contributing to inclusive growth and reduction of poverty, with many of its investments giving benefits to middle-class consumers instead of the poor.

According to one BII study, only 30 per cent of those benefiting belonged to the bottom 60 per cent of the country’s population in terms of income.

It was also learnt that one major investment in an Indian bank, aimed at expanding financial services for the poor, actually led mainly to expansion of the bank’s corporate lending and credit card business.

The review found that the emphasis on climate breakdown, especially in India’s power sector, made sense because of the scale of India’s carbon emissions.

In 2011, the UK overhauled its aid programme in response to the growth of the Indian economy and falling rates of the country’s extreme poverty.

India was the largest recipient of UK bilateral grant aid a decade ago. But the annual funding, which peaked at £421 million in 2010, fell to £95 million in 2020.

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