New Delhi: As India’s economy grows, it is changing course from a nation that receives aid to one that gives. Yet, even as donors scale back funding programmes, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) recently announced that it would give more than Rs2,000 crore as additional development aid, over the next eight years.
It plans to include a system of more direct giving to the Union and state governments. UK officials have said they want their efforts to also reach into states such as Bihar, where non-profits had feared that a corrupt environment prevents aid from reaching those who need it.
Susanna Moorehead, head of DFID’s programmes here, sat down with Mint recently to discuss key issues for India’s largest bilateral aid programme. Excerpts:
Did DFID’s decision to increase aid take people by surprise, given that the rest of the world is cutting aid to India as its economy expands?
No, I don’t think so. Prime Minister Tony Blair made a commitment in 2002 to increase aid to India to £300 million (Rs2,460 crore), and we are working towards that. Even though India’s economy is growing at more than 8%, it still has at least a quarter of the world’s poor.
The British government has a relationship with India that goes far beyond aid, and the government sees DFID’s work here as an integral part of the partnership between our countries.
DFID currently focuses on Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal. Can you speak on how closely DFID is looking at expanding programmes into Bihar?
DFID is committed to working with the poorest people in India, and Bihar surely competes for the bottom of the league table. We already provide £12 million in support every year through centrally sponsored schemes, but our government decided just over a year ago that we should target more resources in the poorest states that we hadn’t been working in up until now.
I think there is a window of opportunity now to both, politically and economically, engage in Bihar in a way that DFID has in other states.
DFID has said it will focus on health. How will that fit in with your plans in Bihar and what else will you focus on?
The government of Bihar has set its own priorities and health is one of those. Related to that, we will look at nutrition. Bihar has some of the highest prevalence of child under-nutrition in India. We’re already providing £75 million to Unicef—not only in Bihar but in the poorest states—and they are doing a lot of work on child health indicators.
What will be different in DFID’s support for the third phase of the national AIDS policy versus the previous round?
The way that we are providing support has changed. We’re bringing HIV and AIDS into line with the way we fund other complex government schemes, which is putting the resources through the government’s budget. That’s not to say that we just put the money in and hope for the best. We have a rigorous system of monitoring and identifying within development work what we will and won’t fund.
But... the scale of the problem is such that the government is really the only institution that’s got the size and the democratic mandate to tackle HIV and AIDS. And we would rather support the government in bringing civil society into that process rather than funding civil society and government independently.
What are the biggest challenges the government faces in this area?
In many ways it’s the same challenge that faces poverty reduction in India. It’s the scale of the problem, even though until now prevalence rates have been mercifully low (less than 1% of India’s 1.1 billion people have HIV) in percentage terms. In numbers terms you have millions who live with HIV already in India (current government estimates say 5.2 million).
There is also the complication of a huge variety between states and what is causing HIV within those states. For example, in the North-East it is closely correlated with intravenous drug use. Elsewhere, we’re finding increasing transmission rates from men to women and then from women to children. So, the situation is so varied it’s hard to think of India as a single HIV problem. In a sense, all the problems you see all over the world, you find in different parts of India.
News reports in recent weeks have projected that India will revise its HIV and AIDS estimates down, possibly by as much as a half. As one of the largest outside donors to HIV and AIDS programmes here, does this concern you?
The first thing to say is that the government is still looking at the data and has promised to take a view on the official figure by next month and we will wait for that outcome. The second is that if there are two or three million fewer people infected with HIV and AIDS, then we are delighted. But the fact is there would still be two or three million infected and that’s a huge number.
It’s not that figures have been inflated in a purposeful way. It’s just that this is an incredibly hard thing to get reliable estimate on. Any step in the direction of getting a more accurate picture is to be welcomed. The key issue for us is, which way is the trend going? Is it going up or down or is it being contained? The fact that prevalence rates still seem to be at 1%—if it falls below that, fantastic, but that’s not to say that DFID’s resources won’t be well used.
If an improved methodology produces revised figures, that is not reason to take our foot off the accelerator. No one doubts the scale of the AIDS crisis and even if it is two or three million less than we thought, it is still a crisis.
Health, hygiene, TB—India is at a turning point.