It’s hard to get anything done in most developing countries if you don’t know your way around. Although it seems obvious, aid agencies often overlook the basic fact that effective development programs require experienced staff who know the local context and who have forged working relationships with key interlocutors. It was in this spirit that the report of our study group on the U.S. development strategy in Pakistan criticized USAID, claiming that it was “neither empowered nor equipped to succeed”. One major problem the study group identified was that America’s aid workers often rotate in and out of the country so quickly (most are on one-year rotations), that they are unable to create the kind of meaningful relationships with Pakistani partners that are crucial to the success of development activities.To remedy this, the study group report suggested that USAID look to the Pentagon’s Af-Pak hands program as a model that provided a possible solution. Since 2009, Pentagon employees who sign up for “Af-Pak hands” are given language and cultural training, and are deployed to either Afghanistan or Pakistan twice over the course of a 45-month commitment. Between deployments, employees assume a role at headquarters that directly supports activities in the region. The purpose of this initiative is to create a cadre of officials with language skills and expertise in their region, experience in the local work environment, and significant relationships with local counterparts.So my colleagues and I were happy to hear about the recent decision to create an Af-Pak hands program within USAID, modeled after the Pentagon program. This fulfills, in part, one of the key recommendations of our study group. Although it is still unclear when the changes will go into effect, USAID has already made internal announcements that non-career employees can apply to participate in the initiative. Unlike the Pentagon’s model, USAID’s Af-Pak hands requires that applicants have at least one year of experience in either Afghanistan or Pakistan to be eligible. If accepted to the program, they are rotated through a one-year US-based role that includes language training and supports field activities, followed by a second year in their country of specialization. USAID hopes that this will lead to field experience informing policy at headquarters, and more experienced staff rotating back out to their postings abroad. It seems to be an important step towards increasing the quality and depth of experience of USAID’s staff in their Pakistan and Afghanistan programs.Although we applaud this smart (and, in our view, necessary) move by USAID, we are somewhat curious as to why the program hasn’t gone a few steps further. First, why limit the applicant pool to people with at least one year of Afghanistan or Pakistan experience? If people are with experience in other areas are willing to sign up for the full Af-Pak hands program, shouldn’t they be included? Second, if USAID’s program is modeled on the Pentagon’s, why not also imitate the full 45 month time-frame? And finally, only USAID staff hired as Foreign Service Limited (FSL) and Personal Service Contractors (PSC) are eligible for Af-Pak hands. This leaves out career USAID employees. Given the current state of play in the region, it seems likely that USAID will need staff with strong local knowledge and working relationships Afghanistan and Pakistan for a long time to come. Why not include career staff too?
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.