The bipartisan Kerry-Lugar Bill, named after US Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar, provides a multi-year, super-sized economic aid programme to the people of Pakistan. This is the right approach to improve US-Pakistan relations. The majority of Pakistanis distrust the United States because they believe we favour military dictators over civilian democrats and are quick to abandon promised economic aid programmes once we have achieved our security goals.
The legislation is a frontal attack on the major obstacle to better US-Pakistan relations–the trust gap–by offering long-term aid directed at civilians. Perhaps because the logic of the Kerry-Lugar bill seemed so self-evident, Washington was stunned when it immediately ran into a barrage of criticism from several quarters in Pakistan.
The Pakistan army felt slighted by the bill’s focus on the civilian government it regards as a rival for national power. Government elites chaffed at heavy reliance on non-profit organisations to distribute aid. And the people despaired at ever benefiting from aid funds after corrupt government officials and gold-plated non-government organisation (NGO) administrators took their cut.
The aid funds will soon be dispersed. But unless we rethink the way we organise this massive programme, it will be counterproductive to building trust and aiding the Pakistani people.
Retooling the American aid programme must address three key weaknesses.
First, Pakistanis have exaggerated expectations for the new aid programme. It may seem like a lot of money to a Pakistani peasant earning a dollar a day, but $1.5 billion annually is a tear drop in the ocean measured against Pakistan’s development needs. Regrettably, many Pakistanis expect the American aid programme to address all social sector shortfalls. Bitter public disappointment seems inevitable.
Second, our approach in Pakistan and elsewhere has not essentially changed since the Cold War strategies of transactional aid programmes, when we attempted to one-up the Soviets with our largess. We are stuck on the erroneous notion that building schools will gain us pro-American sentiment. Without deeper understanding of social and cultural conditions, aid projects are unlikely to produce a change of people’s attitudes.
Finally, the current “made in America” methodology for designing, implementing and monitoring our aid projects strikes many in Pakistan as too US-centric, not to mention overbearing and biased toward elites.
Perhaps the novel approach US President Barack Obama’s Department of Education is pursuing with the Race to the Top fund offers a useful model for dispersing the Kerry-Lugar funds. US Education Secretary Arne Duncan is dangling $4.3 billion in stimulus funds to any US state, school district or local community in a competition for innovative ideas to meet programme goals, such as improved student achievement. Our substantial aid programme offers an opportunity to challenge Pakistanis to design programmes that achieve values both the United States and Pakistan hold dear.
No foreign aid programme can be a substitute for a national reform consensus, but it can help under-gird one. Both our peoples value the rule of law, community safety, equitable quality education and free market systems that provide job opportunities. We should not presume to tell Pakistan how to achieve these goals, but rather encourage those who are committed to them with incentives rather than conditions.
The first step to a reorganised aid programme would be to conduct a nationwide communication campaign to engage the Pakistani public in a discussion of the Kerry-Lugar programme’s goals, its limitations and requirements for community consensus and public investment in order to assure success.
A second step is to open the process to new implementation partners by casting a wide net for proposals. We want to open the process to any group with good ideas capable of delivering results–going beyond the traditional federal ministries and larger NGOs. A board of Pakistani and American experts would evaluate submissions and projects would be selected on the basis of their likely success toward a stated objective.
Importantly, involving the people of Pakistan in the aid programme would achieve outcomes that directly fulfill the original intention of the Kerry-Lugar Bill. It would identify new leaders by opening up the process beyond the current tight circle of educated and landed elites. By allowing Pakistanis who know their situation and culture better than we do to participate in the process, we would encourage innovative and culturally appropriate solutions. A more open process would assure community buy-in. Finally, it would stand a better chance of achieving the Kerry-Lugar Bill’s original intention of engendering greater trust by involving the people in a process that is so important to their well-being.
This approach is based on the crazy assumption that building trust begins first by trusting the Pakistani public enough to allow them to design and implement a programme in their own interests.
* Wendy Chamberlin is President of the Middle East Institute and served as US Ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2002. Assertions and opinions in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the Middle East Institute.