India's larger strategic ambitions have also influenced its development assistance. It has bolstered its aid programs in Nepal and Bangladesh in an attempt to curb Chinese influence; it has emerged as the fifth-largest donor to Afghanistan as it works determinedly to keep its long-standing adversary, Pakistan, at bay; and it has also extended its reach into Myanmar to ensure that Beijing does not rule the roost. Beyond its own neighborhood, India has sought to make inroads into Africa -- not only to obtain access to critical raw materials and energy resources, but also to keep a check on Chinese interests and win support in the United Nations for its ambitions to become a permanent member of the Security Council. Crucially to the recipient countries in Africa, neither India nor China usually imposes conditionalities on aid, in contrast to multilateral and bilateral OECD countries, which makes Indian aid, as well as Chinese aid, more attractive to recipient countries.
India's foreign aid activities have now also extended to humanitarian assistance, such as when its Navy participated in an ad hoc coalition with the United States, Japan, Australia, and Singapore to disburse blankets and tents in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In 2008, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which also devastated significant parts its own coastal regions, India nevertheless provided critical humanitarian relief to other affected countries, particularly Sri Lanka. In 2009, the conflict in Palestine led India to disburse humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories, and India gave humanitarian aid to Tajikistan to avert famine there. Additionally, in response to floods in 2010, India gave humanitarian aid to Pakistan -- a country with which it has fought three wars. These endeavors reflect not only greater institutional capacity to respond to natural calamities, but also the necessary political commitment and diplomatic skill to act swiftly and engage beyond India's traditional neighborhood.
Through humanitarian as well as programmatic lending, India's approach to foreign assistance shows that it wants to be recognized as an emerging great power. In using foreign aid not only to help in times of disaster and spur development in the recipient country, but also to secure Indian resource supplies, seek markets for its goods, and cement larger goals, New Delhi is mimicking the policies of developed countries. Indian foreign aid has seen annual growth rates of 10 to 20 percent over the past decade. And because many traditional aid donors have seen their aid budgets stagnate or even decrease in response to the global economic crisis, India's aid influence could have a multiplying effect.
Due to India's status as an emerging economy, a consolidated democracy, and a developing country free from colonial influence, Indian foreign assistance has great legitimacy in the eyes of other emerging countries -- a legitimacy in clear contrast to that of China. It is this legitimacy that differentiates Indian development assistance and is likely to bolster its soft power.
But as the Indian foreign assistance program increases in size and breadth, it will change how traditional donors view their own foreign aid to India and may well lead to increased questioning among Indians themselves of why a country with a larger number of poor people than all of sub-Saharan Africa is spending its money on foreign aid. For now, however, it seems like international aid to India will keep flowing: Britain recently announced a revamped aid program to India, focusing on the poorest states and most vulnerable groups, with a plan to move from an aid-based relationship to a two-way partnership. And, for once, India's legendarily opaque bureaucracy could have an unintended benefit: Because the country lacks a centralized aid agency with data on the full breadth of Indian foreign assistance -- and because at least a quarter of the population remains illiterate and poor -- it will probably take a while longer for Indians to start questioning their government's aid abroad. So far, this has perfectly served the Indian government, enabling it to distribute aid to serve its larger foreign-policy goals, without having to be held accountable. But with even the richest foreign countries questioning the utility of foreign aid in an age of austerity, Indian leaders may soon have to justify their increasing generosity to voters.