In May, the Indian government announced that it was giving $5 billion in aid to African countries in the interest of helping them meet their development goals. "We do not have all the answers," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "but we have some experience in nation-building, which we are happy to share."
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The British could be forgiven for being annoyed with Singh's largesse. Britain, after all, currently gives more than $450 million a year in aid to India, and has plans to continue doing so for at least the next few years. The British economy is bumping in and out of a recession, while India's gross domestic product is growing at more than 8 percent a year. This has put the British government in the rather bizarre position of having to sell bonds in order to donate money to Asia's second-fastest-growing economy, even as the latter is itself getting into the philanthropy business.
The policy is unpopular with most of the British press, which argues that because India has a space program and some flamboyant billionaires, it does not need aid -- especially when Britain cannot really afford it. (When the Labour government was voted out at last year's general election, the departing Finance Minister Liam Byrne left a one-line note on his desk for his successor: "I'm afraid there is no money." It was a joke -- but it was also true.) Nevertheless, Britain still sees itself as a donor nation, with all the obligations and international prestige that entails. This comes in part from a sense of postcolonial guilt: Prime Minister David Cameron spoke recently of a "sense of duty to help others" and the "strong moral case" for giving aid.
The situation suggests just how dramatically the economic rise of Asia has undone centuries of experience, and the expectation that the West will retain the hegemony it has had for the past 400 years. It is increasingly difficult to classify whether a nation is rich or poor, and terms such as "the Global South" and "the Third World" have to be heavily qualified to take into account the fact that large sections of the population in countries like China, Brazil, and India now have a purchasing power matching that of people in "the West."
In 1951, the American diplomat Bill Bullitt described the condition of India in Life magazine: "An immense country containing 357 million people," he wrote, "with enormous natural resources and superb fighting men, India can neither feed herself nor defend herself against serious attacks. An inhabitant of India lives, on average, 27 years. His annual income is about $50. About 90 out of 100 Indians cannot read or write. They exist in squalor and fear of famine." Today, it would be hard to make such an absolute statement about India. Poverty certainly remains a chronic problem, but it exists alongside pockets of substantial wealth. An Indian's life expectancy at birth now stands at 67 years, and continues to rise. It is necessary perhaps to think in a different way, and to see that a country like India, like Schrödinger's cat, exists in at least two forms simultaneously: rich and poor.
The most important change of the last two decades, since the beginning of economic liberalization, has been the transformation of middle-class Indian aspiration. Although the stagnant days of the controlled economy and the "Permit Raj" -- when important decisions depended on a bureaucrat's authorization -- had their own stability, they also stifled opportunity and individual talent. Members of the professional middle class frequently preferred to seek their fortune in more meritocratic societies abroad.
The modern Indian middle class has a new chance to shape its own destiny in a way that was not previously possible. You can move to your own house using a home loan and live outside the joint family; you can buy a car that is not an Ambassador or a Fiat; you can travel abroad and see how people in other countries live; you can watch your politicians accept bribes or dance with prostitutes on television in local media sting operations while surfing your way to Desperate Housewives or Kaun Banega Crorepati, an Indian adaptation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Businesspeople who have succeeded on their own merits overseas, such as PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, are presented as national heroes.