A bad recipe for winning hearts and minds


With America and Pakistan becoming closer politically, Umer Rashid examines the recent American bill to provide Pakistan with aid

US Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar could be forgiven for feeling a bit flattered after they suddenly found themselves becoming household names, in a place thousands of miles away from their constituencies. What brought them into the eye of the storm was a controversial bill authorising a substantial increase in US aid to Pakistan with various strings attached. Officially called “Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009”, but publicly named after its drafters as the Kerry-Lugar Bill, the bill aims to deliver $1.5 billion a year to Pakistan for the next five years.


The bulk of this aid is meant for hitherto neglected social and economic sectors of the nuclear-armed Muslim nation of 170 million people – a nation that happens to be Washington’s major non-NATO ally and is embroiled in a vicious combat against Islamist militants.

Departing from the policy of giving handouts to military dictators erstwhile, it was the first time in the tumultuous history of its relations with Pakistan that Washington decided to lavish such large sums of money to a civilian government. Hailed as “a true sign of friendship with the people of Pakistan” by Senator Kerry, and welcomed by the civilian government of Pakistan, the bill soon descended into controversy as Pakistan’s military top brass went public with its objections to some conditions attached with the aid. These conditions include direct access to Pakistani nationals involved in nuclear proliferation, ensuring civilian supremacy over military promotion, and certification by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, about Pakistan’s cooperation on counter-terrorism.

Seconding the concerns of Pakistan military, opposition political parties were quick to condemn the bill as a gratuitous American interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs, and to accuse the ruling party of a “sell out” on national sovereignty and security. Heated discussions in newspapers and talk shows on private TV channels lambasted the United States for being grossly insensitive to the concerns of Pakistan.

Just a few days before President Barack Obama signed the bill into law, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, rushed to Washington to convey Pakistan’s reservations and was able to get an “explanatory statement” attached to the bill clarifying that Washington had no intention to micromanage Pakistan’s internal affairs.

American aid is unlikely to reach those most in need, such as these orphans from Pakistan’s Swat valley
American aid is unlikely to reach those most in need, such as these orphans from Pakistan’s Swat valley

Qureshi’s visit to Washington was followed by Senator Kerry’s visit to Pakistan, where the onetime Presidential candidate held meetings with Pakistan’s president, prime minister, army chief, and opposition leader, to allay the misgivings over the bill. Cognizant of the dire economic situation of the country where many people endure shortages of wheat, sugar and energy on daily basis, the Pakistani government had little option but to accept the aid package, even though nearly half of it is likely to go back to the US in the form of consultancy fees and administrative costs.

In Pakistan, the military has been directly or indirect calling the shots during most of the state’s 62-year history. The state’s suspicion, not to mention outright disdain, for civilian control has few takers among ordinary Pakistanis. Nevertheless, many Pakistanis remain unconvinced that civilian aid can make a dent in improving their lives. A recent Gallup poll found only 15 per cent of Pakistanis supportive of the US aid package. “It’s not only about the conditionalities [on aid money], but disenchantment with aid as an instrument of development,” reported Ijaz Gilani, the Gallup Pakistan pollster.

Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, the author of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa, suggested an alternative approach involving trade and foreign investment to ensure a meaningful improvement in Africa.

Some Pakistani commentators have raised similar voices emphasizing trade, not aid, being the need of the hour for the crumbling economy of Pakistan. Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani diplomat, suggests that granting Pakistani goods access to the US market would be appreciated much more than any aid package, as it would bring direct benefits to local industry and employment.

Pakistan received almost $12 billion in aid from the United States between 2001 and 2009, but the lion’s share went on military spending and did not reach the common people. Instead of earning goodwill for America, the aid tended to associate the US with Pakistan’s corrupt and inefficient rulers, thus forwarding their unpopularity to the Americans.

While shifting the bulk of aid package from military to social and development sectors is a commendable move, policymakers in Washington would be well advised not to become over-reliant on aid in the “battle of hearts and minds”. As Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at Cato Institute, says: “Rather than pouring more good money after bad, the U.S. should lift tariff barriers on Pakistani goods. What the Pakistani people need is not more misnamed ‘foreign aid’ funnelled through corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies, but jobs.”