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Aid To Pakistan: Too Much Or Too Little?

How did people come to such wildly different conclusions about American aid to Pakistan?

Some Americans seem to have concluded it's a waste of $20 billion. Yet in Lahore, Pakistani newspaper editor Najam Sethi suggested to me that Pakistan has hardly received any help at all. "It's peanuts," Sethi said.

The answer lies in the incredible complexity of Pakistan, as well as the complexity of sending aid halfway around the world. Nothing about the story is as simple as it seems.

"People ask, why are Pakistanis the most ungrateful people on Earth?" a Pakistani military officer said to me recently, with a hint of sarcasm. "Let me run through some figures."

The officer argued that even though the U.S. has committed billions to Pakistan's military since the Sept. 11 attacks, some of the money is diverted along the way. At the same time, Pakistan's costs are increasing — in money, in troops committed to the war along the border, and in lives lost.


Some Americans agree that the effort to support Pakistan's army has hit snags. Much of the American military aid comes, or is supposed to come, in what are called "coalition support funds," which are intended to reimburse allied militaries for operations beneficial to the United States. The Pakistanis submit their costs; the U.S. decides whether to pay. Recently, more than 40 percent of Pakistan's requests have been rejected. Some of these requests may have been bogus — but a senior U.S. official says not all were. The U.S. official told me that the problem has more to do with American bureaucratic rules than with Pakistani mistakes. Years ago, for example, the U.S. reimbursed Pakistan when it paid death benefits to the families of soldiers killed in combat. More recently, the U.S. has declined to pay.

The picture of civilian aid is also more complicated than it seems. The U.S. Agency for International Development has funded projects in Pakistan for decades. Some projects proved to be a waste of money; others are considered quite successful. Step onto the placid campus of the Lahore University of Management Science, an institution supported by USAID, and you meet elite students at what may be the country's best university. That's not peanuts.

Yet the commitment to civilian aid has never been vast. And even successful projects can get lost in a roiling nation of perhaps 175 million people that is in the middle of a brutal conflict. Pakistan is about six times larger than either Afghanistan or Iraq, both of which have badly strained American knowledge, resources and patience.

The recent effort to increase civilian assistance to $1.5 billion per year has not gone swiftly. The Obama administration has sought to channel the aid through Pakistani governments or nongovernmental organizations, rather than big American contractors. In theory, this ensured that more money, power and skills would pass to Pakistanis, and less to American consultants. In reality, Pakistanis weren't prepared to undertake projects that met U.S. standards.

'Impatient People'

Before committing funds, the U.S. decided to educate Pakistanis on what to do with the money. Andrew Sisson, the mission director for USAID in Pakistan, acknowledges that these training efforts have slowed the disbursement of American money at a time when the need is urgent. Every part of the aid program has its critics right now.

"I work with impatient people, both in our country and in Pakistan," Sisson says in a story on Friday's Morning Edition.

He argues that the job simply takes time. Consider the USAID plan to build or rehabilitate 1,000 schools in the southern regions of the vast province of Punjab. If successful, the plan would simultaneously address three of Pakistan's greatest tragedies. Pakistan suffers from a low literacy rate, especially in rural areas. Many of the schools would replace buildings wrecked in last year's catastrophic floods. And southern Punjab is seen as a major source of the militant fighters who have horrified and transfixed this country with one attack after another; the causes of militancy are complicated, of course, but more education and economic activity wouldn't hurt.

School construction, however, has yet to begin. Sisson says his staff has spent substantial time preparing Pakistan government agencies. Finally the start may be near — just in time for a political complication. Last month, the government of Punjab publicly announced a plan to cast off American aid. The projects affected would include the 1,000 schools.

In an interview, Punjab's law minister, Rana Sanaullah, said with striking frankness that his government made "a political decision," reflecting public anger about drone attacks in Pakistan as well as the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. "The people are very emotional," he said.

It's not certain that Punjab really will reject the money in the end. It is certain that Pakistan ranks among the more complicated challenges the U.S. government has taken on in the crowded decade since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.