Originally Published 2010-11-02 00:00:00 Published on Nov 02, 2010
There is little doubt that fragile states often need external assistance to survive. In the past decade Pakistan has become one such case. A struggling economy, chronic poverty, poor provisions of public services, internal violence
US aid to Pakistan: the broader debate
There is little doubt that fragile states often need external assistance to survive. In the past decade Pakistan has become one such case. A struggling economy, chronic poverty, poor provisions of public services, internal violence and natural disasters have continued to threaten its sovereignty. In the wake of the  newly signed $ 2 billion US military aid package,  policymakers in Washington, and elsewhere, need to debate whether aid alone is really the best course of action for Pakistan. 

Current American aid to Islamabad has been criticised on various counts. There are those who argue that aid will primarily help strengthen Pakistan Army. Such critics claim that American funds are facilitating the subordination of the civil government to military interests and that this spells disaster for the long-term prospects of the country. Others believe that military aid is permissible as long as the aid is properly monitored and accounted for. Critics of the US aid policy to Pakistan are right to question the motives and processes underlying Washington’s actions, but they are forgetting the bigger picture. The real debate should not be about the channeling or monitoring of aid, it should be about the overall effectiveness of aid as an instrument of development, and stability of the country as well as the region.

Aid can be awarded to a country for a multitude of reasons. For example, past US aid to Pakistan has been given to strengthen a military ally, to assist with disaster relief, to reward the government for certain actions or to persuade the state to act in a particular way.  One of the other main justifications of aid however, has also been to help develop the socio-economic foundations of Pakistan to ensure long-term stability. It is within this context that the debate surrounding the efficacy of aid seem most salient.

Proponents of developmental aid argue that well-directed funds can provide a crucial backbone to a developing society. Efficiently allocated aid can finance infrastructural projects that produce basic goods and services, increase employment and fuel economic growth. Foreign funds can also be used to improve health and educations services, create transport links and improve communications networks. As Christine Fair eloquently argues, US civilian aid has not capitalised on these opportunities because it is too supply driven. The focus has been on the output and not on the quality of the service. For example money given to education has translated into more schools being built, not better quality teaching.  If the US is truly committed to developing Pakistan, aid has to be given consistently, conditionally and on a long-term basis.

Whilst there is little doubt that in certain instances aid may be an unavoidable measure, there is a school of thought which challenges the fundamentals of aid. Such critics propose a ‘trade’ agenda in place of an aid policy. Trade empowers countries. It allows economies to flourish and workers to become skilled. Instead of creating a nexus of overdependence between the donor and the recipient, trade affords dignity. In this spirit, in 2009 the US reduced trade tariffs on Pakistani exports and held talks regarding a free trade area. A few days ago however, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, openly declared that both Europe and America need to further open their markets to Pakistan. Thus, despite the fact that Washington remains Islamabad’s largest trade and investment partner perhaps it needs to place a greater focus on trade if it truly wants Islamabad to develop.

It is clear that for any developing country both aid and trade are essential. Both these policy measures have a symbiotic relationship. Aid provides emergency funds to disaster zones, help alleviate epidemics and poverty. Eradicating common sources of insecurity are crucial to  a healthy and productive workforce. It also helps finance education and vocational training as well as funding community projects and basic services. It is aid that gives developing states, like Pakistan, a foothold from which to foster economic competitiveness.

However, the real question is: how committed is the US to Pakistani development? Since 2002, 75% of the financial aid given to Islamabad has been military in nature. Most of it has been aimed at strengthening the relationship between the two states so that the US can rely on Pakistan in the `war  against terror`. Only Pakistan can provide Washington with the access and information it needs to fight al Qaida, the Taliban and various other global terrorist outfits threatening the US. Whilst military aid has been fairly consistent, civilian aid has been sporadic and poorly used.  This suggests that long-term democratic development is not at the forefront of the US policymakers’ agenda.

Amisha Bagri is Research Intern with Observer Research Foundation. 

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