IT WILL take nearly two months for the Indian space mission to reach the moon. It is going the long way round. Unlike American and Russian space rockets, Chandrayaan-2 is very low-powered. It will need to piggyback off the orbit of the Earth for weeks before it can sling itself out to a lunar orbit. The whole adventure has been financed for less than half the cost of a big-budget Hollywood movie. Even so, the launch provoked outraged protests asking how a government can afford such extravagance when India has so many poor people.
It’s an interesting question, as can be see by transposing the idea elsewhere. How about the headline: “England cricketers win the World Cup despite 1.3 million being forced to rely on foodbank handouts.” Or: “Donald Trump’s wall to cost $59 billion while poor people in Alabama suffer from ringworm.” Or: “€1 billion raised in three days to rebuild Notre Dame as ten per cent of France live below the poverty line.” It’s hard not to wonder whether double standards are not at play here.
We saw something similar in 2013, when India launched a satellite around Mars. Again, it was a cut-price job, and, although probes to Mars or the Moon have a prestige aspect to them, launching satellites around the Earth is simply a business proposition for India. So far, it has launched 260 satellites for telecoms companies from all round the world. India’s own weather satellites have accurately predicted the timing and intensity of monsoon storms, and told poor farmers when best to plant crops. But India’s space programme was used as an excuse by the anti-aid lobby in the UK to cut assistance to some of the world’s most destitute people.
We need a more sophisticated understanding of global poverty and the job of aid. That is particularly true now that Boris Johnson’s big backers have called for changes in the aid budget, so that, among other ideas, aid money is diverted to the Department for International Trade. The slogan deployed to justify this is “Trade not aid”. But, last year, the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development criticised the use of the aid budget to pay for the UK’s diplomatic, trade, or diplomatic security interests, because it takes the focus off helping really poor people. The National Audit Office was critical, too.
The idea that the big division is between poor and rich countries is simplistic and outdated. India may have a space programme, but a third of the world’s poor (who live on less than £1 a day) are found there.
About 250 million Indians — a quarter of the country — will go to bed hungry tonight. A child in India is twice as likely as a child in sub-Saharan Africa to be underweight.
“Trade not aid” is lazy thinking. There is no reason why we should not do both. If Mr Johnson’s government is to reconsider aid, it must keep in mind that the moral imperative is not to use aid to advance British interests and businesses. It must be targeted so that it helps the world’s very poorest people.