Friend or Foe: Should the United States Cut Aid to Pakistan?

May 03, 2011
This is a joint post with Wren Elhai and Molly Kinder.The news of Osama bin Laden’s death in a hideout in Pakistan raises fresh questions about the future of the U.S. development program in that country. That bin Laden was found in the army town of Abbottabad - the Pakistani equivalent of West Point -- has fueled suspicions that Pakistan’s leaders have been unhelpful at best and double dealing at worst. Some are asking: if Pakistan won’t help the United States, why should American taxpayers keep giving them so much foreign aid?That question misunderstands the purpose of development assistance. Aid is not a tool to reward or to punish a recipient government. Even on issues of economic policy, aid cannot buy leverage. Similarly, aid is not charity. The reason the United States invests in a country like Pakistan is because instability there threatens long-term security and prosperity here and around the globe. A country of 180 million (soon to be the fourth most populous country in the world), armed with nuclear weapons, with a young and frustrated population ripe for radicalization is the sort of place that people like Osama bin Laden dream of. An entire year’s worth of economic aid to Pakistan ($1.5 billion) is equal to about five and a half days of military spending in Afghanistan. If that relatively small investment can nudge Pakistan slightly towards a more stable, prosperous path—and possibly avoid billions in military costs later—it will have earned the United States massive returns.Meanwhile, walking away would cement the United States’ toxic reputation in Pakistan for decades to come.  Mistrust of the United States in Pakistan is at an all-time high, despite the pledges by U.S. officials, who time and again have said: this time is different, this time the United States is here to stay. Breaking those pledges would undermine U.S. credibility and could undermine the fragile democratic system of government that is still in make-or-break territory and that is Pakistan’s best hope for success. For once, the United States must show that it means it when it says that economic progress and democratic governance matter as much as military cooperation.If walking away is a bad option for the United States, so too is spending money with little to show for it. That’s why we should be disturbed by Jane Perlez’ scathing look at the ways the United States aid program in Pakistan is falling short of its potential, which echoes some of the concerns we picked up during a recent visit to Pakistan. To be sure, Pakistan is a difficult environment for the United States, or any other donor for that matter. But the inherent challenges facing the U.S. aid program in Pakistan and (as Rajiv Chandrasekaran recently described) in Afghanistan are compounded by the mixed-up structures and confused priorities of the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy. A skeptic might then ask: even if it is important for the United States to get its aid program right, is it possible for it to do so in Pakistan?We think it is, and that the United States can do better. In fact, there is a window of opportunity available now. A new set of leaders in the American bureaucracy—a new Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a new Ambassador, and a new USAID mission director, are working well together. The USAID Pakistan mission is finally close to fully staffed to manage a larger program less dependent on contractors and more on USAID technical teams working with Pakistani counterparts.. USAID promises a more focused set of fewer but larger projects.  One month from now, our study group on U.S. development strategy in Pakistan will release a report, outlining how the United States can seize this opportunity. We will recommend changes to the processes and structures for planning and implementing the strategy in Pakistan and recommend ways to focus and clarify U.S. objectives and priorities.As luck would have it, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing Thursday to discuss the limitations of U.S. policy towards Pakistan. The hearing was on the schedule long before the sleepy town of Abbottabad entered heavy rotation on the cable news networks. We fully expect Senators to raise tough questions about U.S. aid to Pakistan, sharpened by this weekend’s events. We would hope they also take the opportunity to clarify why the United States has a robust development program in Pakistan in the first place, and to think hard about how it could do better (including doing more with U.S. trade policy).It took ten years of focused effort, persisting through repeated setbacks, to finally track down Osama bin Laden. That effort, as President Obama put it yesterday, has made the world safer and, "a better place." A similar long-term commitment is exactly what is needed to put Pakistan on a healthier development path—and to make the world a better, safer place. No, now is not the time to abandon ship by cutting off the development program in Pakistan. Now is the time to right the ship.


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.