The answer to this simple question is complex.

In order to understand why we choose to focus our philanthropic resources in India, the current climate of India must be understood. With over 1.2 billion inhabitants, India is a densely populated country, and with such a rich history, it’s no surprise that it is full of contradictions and complexities. Incomprehension of such complexities can lead to false impressions, which prompt questions such as ‘why should we give aid to a country that is able to fund its own space programme?’


India’s Wealth Distribution

Millions of people in India currently live in abject poverty; 450 million people live on less than 90 pence per day. Millions of young children are undernourished and uneducated, 18 million of them live on the streets, and millions of families go about their day-to-day lives without access to electricity, running water, or a clean toilet. It is shocking to note that India is home to a third of the world’s poor; there are more impoverished people living in eight Indian states than there are in 26 of the poorest African countries combined.

When considering aid in India, much of the discussion focuses on the fact that India’s wealth is significantly greater than any other developing country in the world. It’s true that India has a GDP of $2.264 trillion, which is not far from the UK’s GDP of $2.619 trillion. This places India as the 7th largest economy by GDP. It’s also true that Indian industries, such as automobiles and services, are booming, and that India has the capital to create nuclear weapons, aircraft, and submarines. On the whole, India is a prosperous global power.

But these statistics cover a much more nuanced reality. The disparity between the highest earners and those that live in poverty is immense. To focus on the wealth of the whole country distorts the reality of the truly dire situation that many millions of people find themselves in, and it does not give an accurate representation of a country that is home to millions of disadvantaged people. India’s overall wealth should not negate the drastic inequalities that exist within the structure of India’s economy, as India’s accumulation of wealth has not impacted upon India’s poorer regions. This market-driven growth has not been a catalyst for a significant reduction in poverty. Instead, every year that goes by, the disparity widens.


How Can India Justify Funding A Space Programme?

Those who question why India ‘deserves’ charitable aid often cite the existence of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) as a point of contention. People question how a country can justify funding such a large-scale space programme when so many of its inhabitants are suffering. Firstly, it’s worth noting that India currently spends only 0.09% of their annual GDP on ISRO. Furthermore, the main goals of the ISRO are to provide accurate weather reports, to enable natural disaster warnings and to increase the availability of online education in remote areas.

In fact, the ISRO’s ability to reduce the number of deaths caused by natural disasters has a particularly strong impact on the worst off in society, as they are more likely to live in unstable homes. The tremendous effects of the ISRO’s work were seen recently when it predicted a fierce cyclone that hit India’s east coast. A cyclone with a similar strength hit the very same spot in 1999 and killed over 10,000 people. The accurate forecast meant that action was taken and only a small number of casualties were recorded.

The crux of this issue, however, is that the eradication of poverty and the social development of a country are not mutually exclusive. Solving issues such as economic inequality and progressing the space programme are two varying forms of social progress that will inevitably run alongside each other.


The Paradoxes Of Social And Economic Development

If India’s current investment in growing industries still creates an uncomfortable paradox in people’s minds, perhaps it would be helpful to recall Britain’s situation during the Industrial Revolution. Between 1760 and 1840, millions of working-class Britons resided in overcrowded slums. As a result of poor sanitation and water contamination, the spread of fatal diseases was rife; many millions of young children died of Tuberculosis or Cholera, or simply starved to death. These horrific conditions were widespread during a time when the United Kingdom was experiencing its greatest period of growth and economic development

Moreover, it’s hard to have this debate without considering the widely held view that the Indian economy suffered greatly at the hands of the British Empire.  At the beginning of the 18th century, India’s economy accounted for 23% of global wealth, which rivalled Europe’s total wealth at the time. By the time British colonists left India, the Indian economy had collapsed dramatically to only 3%. Opinions on colonial debt and reparation are controversial and contentious, but the facts are undeniable and lead us to question the extent to which the United Kingdom’s financial growth was facilitated by the colonisation of India.


The True Purpose Of Aid

Aid should not be measured solely in monetary terms, and supporting India should not be seen as reparation. The purpose of aid charities is to help disadvantaged, desperate individuals, and to provide them with healthier and more fulfilling lives. As Praful Bigwai rightly notes, “good aid programmes can make humane existence possible for millions who have been denied it.” Surely nobody would suggest that the millions of people living in poverty in India are in a less desperate situation than those living in a country that is, overall, a poorer country?

India’s issues with poverty are driven, not only by its economy but also by fraught, historical social class systems. A powerful interplay of caste, ethnicity, and patriarchy has created deep-rooted divisions within its society, which has led to particular minorities being disproportionately affected by poverty. Sanitation First recognises that women and children from socially excluded communities are the most affected by poverty, and we promote programmes that recognise India’s delicate social fabric and seek to redress these structural imbalances.

NGOs work in places where they can truly make a difference to the lives of individual people by breaking cycles of poverty. India, in particular, has immense potential for social transformation; it could achieve a 3000% increase in its current GDP if it could attain the average labour productivity level of America.[xiii] Sanitation First recognises this potential and sees an immense opportunity to help communities grow and develop. We place great value in working alongside the millions of people whose lives are worlds away from India’s extravagance and riches.


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VOA News, 2010. Study: More Poor People in India than in 26 African Countries. [online] Available at:




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