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Each year, the United States spends over $35 billion on foreign aid. While the efficacy of such aid is one of the most hotly debated topics in international policy, few will deny that well-administered funds can bring significant advancements in health, education, and regional stability. From the WHO’s successful reduction in HIV/AIDS across Africa, to notable declines in poverty in nations under the World Bank’s debt relief and cancellation program, to the US-backed rebuilding of South Korea’s post-war economy and civil infrastructure, one need only look to development triumphs to see that aid can and does work.  But it seems that for every great success, there is an expensive failure. I am fearful that my home country – Pakistan – is headed down this rat hole.

Drawing billions from U.S. taxpayers' pockets each year, aid to Pakistan is intended to strengthen security infrastructure and democracy. The world’s oldest Islamic Republic, which is a key nuclear state in a febrile region, is the recipient of American money despite trouble in our relationship, not the least of which includes America finding and killing Osama bin Laden here. We all acknowledge that only the development of transparent, legitimate institutions accountable to the people can serve as a long-term bulwark against instability and extremism.

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And there have been moments of great success. As of 2015, stability has been restored in the Pakistani economy and the civilian assistance programs have been some of the most effective US aid operations to date. Triumphs include the addition of 1750 megawatts to the power grid, the building of 1000 km of roads, many of which connect to Afghanistan, and the repatriation of thousands of refugees from Waziristan. The US has also contributed to significant advancement in infrastructure, agriculture, and education, and helped our nation’s employment rate remain steady in the face of a tremendous youth bulge. Regarding the strengthening of democratic institutions, one of the US’s main funding priorities, we witnessed the first successful democratic transition in 2013 from one elected civilian government to another.

Despite these breakthroughs, the record is riddled with lapses in impact where it matters most. First, surveys show that only 20% of the Pakistani population supports the government’s friendly relationship with the United States. Compare that with the nearly 10% which openly support ISIS, and the figure becomes even bleaker.

Additionally, there has been mutual frustration over the perceived failure to crack down on the Haqqani network and other militant groups despite funds poured into counterterrorism and security infrastructure.  The Pakistanis think they’re pulling more than their weight, having launched the largest counterinsurgency operation in the country’s history in 2014, a costly and bloody undertaking that has significantly reduced terror attacks on their soil. But Washington, which has doled military aid to Pakistan on an average of roughly $2 billion per year since 2002 (which is significant, considering the country’s overall annual defense budget is roughly $5 billion) thinks the Pakistani military still must do more. So while civilian fatalities to terrorist violence have declined from a staggering 11,704 in 2009, the 2015 figure of 3,682 far exceeds the 189 who perished in 2003. Next door, Afghanistan continues to bleed and reel as reconciliation with Taliban groups, factions of which are based here in Pakistan, fails. 

So why is it that, billions of dollars later, the US’s relationship with the Pakistani populace remains precarious at best? The answer: A broken oversight mechanism riddled with corruption.

Despite international pressure to clean house, corruption remains part of the fabric of the Pakistani government. So much so that it has wormed its way into the leading anti-corruption oversight agency: Transparency International in Pakistan (TIP). I witnessed this firsthand as a former fellow at TIP. Incumbent Cabinet ministers, award-winning journalists, senior bureaucrats, leading industrialists and even courageous insiders, have blown the whistle on the organization’s leadership for abuse of authority to intimidate and settle scores, as well as for its own financial and political benefit. But in this broken system, both the leadership and the irony of the situation remain staunchly unchanged, as TIP’s leadership now ‘advises’ the government while auditing it at the same time. In fact, the anti-corruption watchdog went so far that, in a blatant act of nepotism and personal benefit, the chairman of TIP who signed a contract with USAID for an anti-corruption hotline had his own son appointed as head of the program. As nobody watches the watchdogs and the Pakistani people lose faith in the hand that feeds them, non-state actors championing reform – dominated by extremist organizations – lure supporters with seemingly ‘pure’ alternatives. And yet we wonder why hearts and minds do not follow the money.

That said, pulling the plug on funds would be a drastic mistake. Measures such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerDemocrats torch Trump for floating 'rogue killers' to blame for missing journalist Trump to send Pompeo to meet Saudi king Trump defends 0B US arms sale to Saudi Arabia MORE’s move to ban Pakistani purchase of F-16s and the 2016 passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which will block $450 million in aid to Islamabad, only serve to deepen the relational chasm between nations. This chilling in our alliance feeds directly into the rhetoric and intents of extremist organizations, fills their ranks with recruits, and leaves us with few friends in a strategically critical region.

We must reform and rethink, not retrench. 

Just as it conditions its military aid, the U.S. must also condition its aid to Pakistani oversight institutions on reforms of accountability and anti-corruption policies. Following suit, USAID should conduct an overhaul of its oversight policies, and enact strict follow-through on grants to ensure that good money is being put to good use. With precious tax dollars and the fate of a strategically critical region in play, the U.S. can’t just tick the box of ‘aid granted’ and move on.

Foreign aid plays an important role in countries like Pakistan. And from Fulbright scholarships to media literacy to highways, it has done a tremendous amount of good; good that lifts not only the nation, but the region with it. To preserve the integrity of foreign funds, the US must be vigilant about its aid infrastructure lest non-governmental antagonists deal irreparable blows with its own wayward dollars.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.