Maid in Manhattan

Why isn't anyone focusing on the domestic help in the Indian diplomatic scandal?

On Dec. 12, Devyani Khopragade, India's deputy consul-general in New York, was arrested and jailed, accused of misrepresenting on a visa application the wages she paid a member of her household staff. The circumstances of her imprisonment -- which reportedly included a strip search and a cavity search, and being held in a cell with drug addicts, before being released on $250,000 bail -- have inflamed public opinion and ignited a furor in Indian government circles. Indian National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon described her treatment as "barbaric," while India's mild-mannered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to it as "deplorable." Prominent former Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha even suggested that India apply a colonial-era law prohibiting same-sex relationships against U.S. diplomatic personnel as retaliation.

But nearly two weeks later, one critical matter has been almost entirely overlooked: the plight of the maid, Sangeeta Richard. According to a statement from her lawyer, Richard worked "far more than 40 hours a week" and was paid roughly $3.30 an hour -- about a third of New York City's legal minimum wage. Practically none of the thousands of articles, blog posts, and tweets written about the arrest in India focused on Richard's plight.

It is hardly surprising that Indian commentators are ignoring her. The upper-middle-class background and social status of journalists and pundits in the country's deeply hierarchical society leads them to empathize with one of their own over the working conditions of domestic help. The treatment of the diplomat is a "national outrage," according to Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, but the treatment of Richard -- whose husband has reportedly been interrogated by police in India -- is ignored.

In a society fraught with deep social inequities thanks to the "mind-forged manacle" of caste, to borrow poet William Blake's evocative phrase, the colonial legacy of sharp class differences, and the recent emergence of a nouveau riche, most middle- and upper-class Indians treat their domestic help as little better than chattel. Few employers actually recognize that their domestic help have clear-cut rights and are deserving of fair treatment.

Apart from the weight of historical legacies and social mores, powerful economic forces also help reinforce these mostly unfeeling attitudes. India's rapidly urbanizing population means that there is an almost unending supply of cheap and pliant labor. If domestic workers dare to challenge existing practices and mores they can be dismissed at will and replaced easily. Acutely aware of their circumstances, few choose to challenge the well-entrenched privileges of their employers. And although the country has a minimum-wage law, it is laxly enforced. As a consequence, employers, for the most part, can dictate wages, working hours, and living conditions with impunity. Even India's robust and expanding non-governmental organization (NGO) sector, with its predominantly middle- and upper-class social base, has devoted few resources to highlighting the conditions of this component of the working class.

Ironically, the country's rapid economic growth in the past few decades has done little to improve the lot of those employed as maids, cooks, and drivers. Much of India's growth has come from high-end employment in service sectors -- which has done pitiably little to improve working conditions or wages for those employed in India's sprawling informal economy. Though salaries have increased, they have not kept pace with inflation and few other privileges have accrued to this segment of the working class. Against this socio-economic backdrop, it should come as little surprise that those in the privileged and rarefied atmosphere of India's diplomatic service should have little compunction about how they treat their staff. Accustomed to routinely overlooking existing laws about fair employment practices at home, many see no reason to act differently abroad. 

To be sure, there are Indian commentators who have spoken out against Richard's treatment. Shekhar Gupta, the editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, a daily English-language newspaper, opined that Richard "is a victim of awful, callous exploitation." Like everyone else, however, he added that Khopragade was "subjected to the horrible indignation of America's arrest procedures."

Yes, the alleged circumstances of Khopragade's arrest showed a striking degree of insensitivity on the part of the local law enforcement authorities. But a better outcome of this event would be to prompt soul-searching among Indian elites on the treatment of domestic help in their society. In mid-December, in an obvious sign of irritation, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs halted liquor imports to the U.S. Embassy, removed some of the police barriers around the embassy compound, and suspended the airport access privileges of U.S. diplomats. What if instead of lashing out at the United States, the Indian government actually began enforcing laws designed to protect its domestic servants? 

STAN HONDA / AFP / Getty Images


America Is Not the Grinch

Sorry, haters, when it comes to foreign aid -- of all sorts -- the United States is far and away the most generous nation on Earth.

Between the steady drip of Edward Snowden leaks about the National Security Agency and Syria's slow burn, it seems pretty easy these days to cast the United States as the villain when it comes to international affairs. That makes this holiday season an ideal one to debunk one of the longest-standing myths about the United States: that it is miserly when it comes to helping other nations through foreign aid.

Much of the myth of America's stinginess traces its roots back to the 1970 commitment by the U.N. General Assembly that rich countries should dedicate 0.7 percent* of their gross national income (GNI) to what is dubbed "official development assistance" (ODA). Although a number of European countries have embraced the target, the United States has never done so, arguing that it is a poor measure of America's relative commitment to helping the poor in the developed world.

Critics of the United States are quick to point out that the United States, at around 0.02 percent, has one of the lowest rates of official aid to GNI of the major industrialized countries, which is true. But this statistic says a lot more about the ridiculousness of how we currently measure ODA than it does about what the United States brings to the table.

The United States is not only the largest donor of ODA in the world, providing more than $30.5 billion toward that end in 2012, but it makes far and away the largest private contributions to development and poverty alleviation of any nation on Earth -- more than 30 percent of all such giving on the planet. Because ODA only measures government spending on development, it totally ignores private giving -- whether it be the year-end check you just wrote to the International Committee of the Red Cross or the billions of dollars poured into lifesaving programs by the Gates Foundation.

Those contributions deserve to count, and the United States deserves credit for setting up a tax structure that rather uniquely among nations rewards people for their charitable giving by making it routinely tax deductible.

A wonderfully detailed report by a British NGO, Development Initiatives, offers a far richer and more accurate picture of the state of development investments by countries around the globe. In the United States, private spending on international development -- at around $30 billion annually -- is already as large as government spending (and by some accounts larger.)

That's not even counting the money sent back to developing countries from the United States. Remittances from the United States to the developing world total more than $100 billion each year, and U.S. remittances make up almost 30 percent of all remittances received by developing countries. Then there's U.S. foreign direct investment in developing countries -- more than $40 billion. All told, more than $200 billion from the United States flows into the developing world each year. When that's compared to the 2012 global total for ODA of $128 billion -- and that's $128 billion from all the bilateral aid agencies on Earth -- you begin to get a sense that we are not really measuring the right things when it comes to accounting for development spending.

More perniciously, ODA also overstates the generosity of some of America's European allies, because certain categories of loans are also included as development assistance. But many of these loans are on terms that are not highly concessional, and when the loans are repaid they end up representing far less of a transfer of wealth than ODA statistics would lead us to believe.

Now consider that the United States has more than doubled its aid to sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade, made massive U.S. investments in PEPFAR and the Global Fund that have led to a historic turnaround in the HIV/AIDS crisis, and has long been the most generous donor in responding to humanitarian crises around the globe.

For those who remain skeptical that the United States is actually relatively generous, here are the results from the recently released World Giving Index: Proportionally more Americans gave their time and money than citizens of any other country, and they recorded the highest score in the index's history last year.

But what is perhaps most ironic -- and tragic -- is the profound gulf in how American aid and charity is seen at home and abroad. Most foreigners think the United States is a heartless cheapskate when it comes to development. In contrast, most Americans think their own country is wildly profligate when it comes to spending on international development. For example, a recent poll found that most Americans estimated about 28 percent of the federal budget goes to spending on foreign aid, when in reality that figure has traditionally hovered around 1 percent.

Perhaps the idea that the United States has been a steady, consistent, and largely responsible development investor is something that isn't easy for anyone to get their head around. But a Grinch it most assuredly is not.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of ODA in the 1970 U.N. commitment. It is .7 percent, not .07 percent.  

MARK RALSTON / AFP / Getty Images