Friday Roundup: Who Will Implement US Aid to Pakistan?

With a USAID administrator at long last named and awaiting confirmation, some of pieces of the overall US development strategy should finally begin falling into place. Will we then get some answers on what the heck is going on with US aid in Pakistan? Those of you who follow the region know that in October, Congress moved to triple current levels of non-military aid to Pakistan, approving a package for $7.5 billion over the next five years. After that, the fight broke out. The State Department and special envoy Richard Holbrooke sketched out plans to abruptly funnel the money through the Pakistani government and Pakistani NGOs, rather than through American contractors, who implement the majority of USAID’s contracts at the moment. The idea is to cut the overhead costs of working with foreign contractors, build the capacity of local organizations, and get results fast.

The NYT reported the means and ends of the new aid money: “American officials say the main goals of the new assistance will be to shore up the crumbling Pakistani state by building infrastructure like roads and power plants, and to improve the standing of the United States with the Pakistani people.”

Note the assumption here that development is a tool for achieving diplomacy goals, and that it can be used to achieve these goals in short order. I wonder: have they taken a hard look at Afghanistan’s ring road project, which remains unfinished after taking the lives of 162 contractors and $1.4 billion in foreign aid funds? As for winning hearts and minds, conditions of the new aid bill have caused anger at what many Pakistanis perceive as American interference in Pakistani affairs, with one Pakistani politician calling the bill “the charter for new colonization.” Public opinion polls show overwhelming opposition to US military activity in Pakistan, and popular resentment towards the US appears to be growing, influenced by opposition to drone attacks in Pakistan and events in Iraq and Afghanistan (and fed even by Pakistani pop musicians.) So if hearts and minds can be won with development dollars at all, it is bound to be a long, expensive, uphill slog.

Unsurprisingly, USAID and their contractors are opposed to the State Department reshuffle. A sensitive but unclassified memo leaked to USA Today from a senior USAID economist complained of “contradictory objectives” and protested that “directing an immediate shift away from US contractors already on the ground to local implementers without an appropriate transition period will seriously compromise the more important requirements for quick counterinsurgency and economic impacts.” Local organizations, he said, are not equipped to follow the complex accounting and reporting procedures required to ensure that the money is spent properly.

Then again, USAID’s track record for success in Pakistan post 9/11 is spotty at best, with reports from CSIS (quoted below) and Harvard finding that US development aid spending has been hampered by security concerns, plagued by unnecessarily high overhead costs, and is unlikely to be effective in the tribal areas: “The process of building schools and opening health clinics is unlikely to produce development in any broad sense. What is more likely… is that the system of patronage used to maintain political authority will also co-opt the development funds provided to the tribal areas.”

USAID later issued a press release noting that “big changes” are “imminent” but insisting that current USAID programs would not be terminated.  So what's the plan??