Khalil Afridi recently survived a fatal attack by militants when a hand grenade was hurled at him. “They want me to quit development work, because of my association with Western donors,” he says.
He has been a social worker in Khyber Agency, an area bordering Afghanistan through which supply routes run, for the past eight years and is currently working on water projects with the US Agency for International Development (USAID). But he says it’s too dangerous to tell this to locals. Instead, he says, “We tell people it’s the Pakistani government funding these projects.”
Anti-US sentiments and foreign policy squabbles are thwarting good US public relations from reaching turbulent, poor border regions of Pakistan. They are also putting the lives of aid workers there at risk.
Like Mr. Afridi and many others, Shahzad Afridi (not related) has also worked for projects funded by USAID in Khyber Agency and is careful about making sure he does not mention USAID. “The militants think we are spies for the West, and they have threatened me to stop,” he explains.
USAID does not have any offices in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) but operates out of Peshawar, a settled area adjacent to the tribal areas. Officials here recognize the threats and say security is one of the biggest challenges to their aid work, so they've found a small way to work around it.
“It is the requirement of US government to brand its aid, but we are giving waivers to projects undertaken in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, because if they put up our logos etc, it can be life threatening,” says Mehdi Ali Khan, the communication specialist for USAID here.
Another official says USAID in Pakistan would prefer to be more transparent. Not only would it help to show that money is being put to good use, but it could build good will toward the US.
“We [would] like to get credit but it’s a complex situation. There is a war in Afghanistan. There are areas under conflict in Pakistan.... This is the reality,” he says wishing not to be named since he is not authorized to speak to the media. The official said USAID was putting up signboards that say the project is USAID funded in areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in northwest Pakistan, but in areas like FATA, it just wasn’t possible.
The trouble with branding
Some in the region criticize USAID’s approach.
Shad Begum, who received the International Women of Courage Award by the US State Department for her social work in the area, was threatened by the Taliban for working for the US government, even after asking the press in the area not to cover her award in the media for her safety.
“USAID is more focused towards highlighting their name than focusing on development on many of the projects on which I worked with them,” she says. She developed a campaign recently on capacity building and social rights awareness that involved distributing fliers and putting up banners. But because USAID helped fund it, the organization required that its logo be visible on all materials she handed out, she says.
Ms. Begum says she had to argue with USAID over the size of the logo and the American flag. “People hate the Americans in this region because of their foreign policy,” she says. Displaying the US flag, on a school, a new road, or other infrastructure project fuels anti-US sentiment and, worse, can put needed social projects in jeopardy.
Some avoid USAID money
Violent anti-US sentiment among the public in the area has led many development organizations to decline to work with USAID altogether.
Muhammad Tahseen, who heads South Asia Partnership, a network of more than 1,000 nongovernment organizations all over Pakistan says that working with USAID can even be counterproductive to development.
Aid workers complain USAID money has a lot of strings attached that complicate their efforts. “We feel the aid has to do more with politics and not with development so we have refused to work with them,” Mr. Tahseen says.
Pakistan’s political leadership in the parliament blames the negative US image in Pakistan not only on the recent high profile incidents, but also on the weakness of Pakistan's decision makers.
“Extremist groups in the country have been given a free hand to bash the Americans, and they do it under the support of ‘certain quarters,’” says Bushra Gohar, a parliamentarian belonging to KP’s ruling class, the Awami National Party (ANP). She is referring to the military, which is widely seen as the primary decision maker in the country. “The group of Hafiz Saeed [connected to terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba] came up from nowhere and everyone knows at whose behest they are pumping religion-based politics and fueling anti-US sentiments. This is weakening Pakistan further,” Mr. Gohar warns.
These banned outfits have gathered support by picking up contentious issues like continued drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the killing of two men in Lahore by the CIA contractor Raymond Davis last year, and most recently, the Salala border post accident, which led to the closure of NATO supply routes after it was attacked by Western forces on Nov. 26 killing 24 Pakistani soldiers.
$7.5 billion over five years from US
The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 with the US government authorizes democratic, economic, and development assistance to Pakistan of up to $1.5 billion per year from fiscal year 2010 to 2014, for a total of as much as $7.5 billion, according to USAID officials documents.
USAID has spent more than $2.6 billion dollars in the past two years. In 2011, USAID refined the strategy to focus assistance on economic growth, energy, education, health, and stabilization.
But Pakistani analysts feel that the US government has failed to change the perceptions of the public in Pakistan despite its huge commitments.
“The US had an opportunity in Pakistan. It could have engaged in a meaningful aid delivery program but it made aid subservient to foreign policy squabbles, and to military strategy in Af-Pak which fueled the public perception that US development assistance is a means to further its regional agenda,” says Raza Rumi, a leading columnist and a development consultant. “It is simply tragic that enormous amount of such aid gets squandered either through bad planning or making it hostage to political imperative.”