Back from Pakistan: The U.S. Assistance Program Not Yet on Course

April 25, 2011

What do Pakistanis think of the United States’ ambitious development program in their country? Molly Kinder, Wren Elhai and I recently returned from what amounted to a two week listening tour of Pakistan (I was there for the second week). What we heard from a broad set of Pakistani officials, academics, journalists, and business people (as well as staff of other donor missions) was troubling.Dozens of thoughtful Pakistanis were eager to share their impressions and advice. Almost all had tales of woe. Programs that were in full gear before a last-minute priority change from Washington cut them. Statements on Pakistani politics from visiting American officials that rubbed even supporters of reform the wrong way. Frustration about announced projects apparently still not started. Widespread skepticism of U.S. motives—many Pakistanis we consulted questioned whether the Kerry-Lugar-Berman program was really about development at all. Most of all, we heard from otherwise well-informed Pakistanis that they have no idea what the U.S. strategy is and where the program now stands.Even the basic question of how much of the well-publicized Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid commitment has been disbursed is a mystery in Pakistan (and, despite our repeated requests to USAID over the last two months, here in Washington as well!). Meanwhile, many are fed up that what they really want from the United States, market access for Pakistani exports, has still not materialized after years of talk.Many Pakistanis outside of government have deep frustrations and concerns about their own government of course. That, however, only compounded their frustration with the United States, perhaps because they hold the world’s superpower to a higher standard.

Just a taste of what we were up to in Pakistan (click through to Flickr for titles/descriptions).

At the same time, spending even a short time in Pakistan gave us a much better sense of the difficulties faced by those working on the U.S. aid program there. We’ve spent the past year observing this program from Washington and writing recommendations along the way. We went to Pakistan in part to ground-truth the recommendations we had developed against the reality in the field. Here, again, what we saw was troubling: the program looks so muddled to Pakistanis on the outside because it is genuinely muddled on the inside.  The lack of clarity about the priorities of the U.S. development program and who is responsible and accountable for that program make it difficult for hard-working staff in Islamabad to do their jobs at all, let alone well.The circumstances have been especially challenging in the last 18 months for USAID staff. They’ve been asked to program a three-fold increase in resources as quickly as possible, and in a largely new way: switching as much as possible from spending through U.S.-based contractors to funding Pakistani government agencies and non-government groups. The new approach requires building working relationships with Pakistanis in and out of government, a difficult task in general and one that requires time. But even senior staff stay one, at most two years, and security concerns heavily restrict their mobility considerably, even compared to other donors’ staffs. In addition, key relationships with officials in the government of Pakistan and with other donors have been cultivated by very senior U.S. officials, often in the State Department— not by the staff tasked with implementing the strategy. A divorce between policy dialogue and program implementation robs field staff of the incentives and the time needed to develop their own good working relationships, a key attraction of field assignments in most countries. Add the muddled leadership structure that complicates strategy and breeds interagency tension and a tough mission is made almost impossible to get right.Lest this be an entirely doom and gloom update, I came away convinced that it is not too late for the United States to get on course and do better. Buried under the troubling headlines (we thankfully missed the worst of the uproar over CIA contractor Raymond Davis), are some reasons for hope, on both the Pakistani side and on the U.S. side.On the Pakistani side, the democratic system of government continues to weather the storm. There has been progress in devolving money and power to the provinces—a necessary step if one that will bring some chaos in the short term. The response to the floods—even recognizing the important contribution of the army—has been sufficient for the democratic government to retain legitimacy. The first national census in thirteen years will likely capture important shifts in Pakistan’s demographics that could shake up the ossified political order. A blossoming (if at times sensationalistic) private media sector will shape the political discourse in the run-up to next year’s critical elections. And from corporate boardrooms to the offices of small NGOs and even among the technocrats in government, there is broad agreement on the policies needed to solve Pakistan’s looming economic mess. Even better, efforts to advocate for some of these policies are gaining momentum– a momentum I didn’t sense on my last visit in the Musharraf era seven years ago.On the U.S. side, we heard that important pieces of the new strategy hatched in late 2009 are just now moving into place. Over 100 governmental and non-governmental recipients have been vetted to receive U.S. funds, and processes for selecting projects in collaboration with the Pakistani government have been worked out. There is a new leadership team in place (a new USAID mission director, new Ambassador, and a new Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan here in DC), a team that has already taken steps to focus and simplify the U.S. program in Pakistan. And other donors are succeeding with some programs in good collaboration with the federal and some provincial governments in Pakistan, creating space in sectors like education for the United States to step on board and add its heft.Pakistan is in many ways a microcosm of the issues my colleagues follow closely on this blog: the flawed means by which the United States promotes development abroad and to what end. In Washington, the new USAID evaluation policy and progress on changing procurement policies will help. Administrator Raj Shah’s effort to jumpstart innovations in how aid is delivered might pilot aspects of a new approach in Pakistan. But the broader reforms will take time to take root. In Pakistan, faster and deeper change ought to be the goal. Watch this space for how. In a little over a month, we will release a report that lays out our ideas and those of our study group on U.S. development strategy in Pakistan for what the United States could do better. For more on what we found in Pakistan and a flavor of what we hope to recommend, listen to my colleagues Molly Kinder and Wren Elhai interviewed on this week’s Global Prosperity Wonkcast.


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.