On August 13th, an American aid worker named Warren Weinstein was kidnapped from his home in an upscale neighborhood in Lahore. According to news reports, he was employed by JE Austin, a consulting firm based in Arlington, VA. Weinstein had apparently been living in Lahore for several years, working on a USAID-supported project called “The Pakistan Initiative for Strategic Development and Competitiveness.” According to project documents, the PISDC attempts to increase the international competitiveness of several key economic actors, including dairy farmers, gem cutters and surgical instrument manufacturers.
In the days since his kidnapping, conspiracy theories about Weinstein’s occupation have abounded in Pakistan. Everyone from Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah to my own family members (who live in Pakistan) have wondered aloud whether Weinstein was secretly working on behalf of the CIA, and if his kidnappers were connected to Pakistan’s military intelligence. Few people have heard of his company, and it’s difficult to find information on the project he was managing, even if you know what to look for. The result of this information gap is that many intelligent, curious people (both American and Pakistani) quickly assumed that Weinstein was connected with American intelligence. With the Raymond Davis fiasco so prominent in the public’s mind, and information about the CIA’s alleged false vaccination campaign still emerging, this is perhaps not surprising. Yet the information gap further complicates USAID’s efforts.
Besides serving as another grim reminder of the difficulty of implementing development projects in Pakistan, this latest incident is an example of why the US government, and particularly USAID, needs to clarify its mission and be transparent about what it is doing. (As a matter of fact, these are both recommendations that were made in CGD’s recent report on U.S. development to Pakistan.) As long as it is unclear to ordinary Pakistanis what USAID’s objectives are, and how money is being spent to achieve those objectives, development projects and aid workers are likely to continue to arouse suspicion throughout the country.
As is detailed in our recent report, one step towards increased transparency would be a comprehensive USAID-Pakistan website that provides information on disbursements and ongoing projects, in both English and Urdu. This platform would perform several important functions. First, it would allow the Pakistani public to understand what USAID is doing and to see how their programs are benefitting a very large number of Pakistanis. Second, it would provide a higher degree of accountability for U.S. funds that are provided to contractors, NGOs, and the government of Pakistan. Finally, it would provide documentation and evidence for more balanced, mainstream Pakistani news outlets to make counter-arguments against their conspiracy-minded colleagues. Several administration officials have told us that such a website is in the works, though several months later, we are still eagerly awaiting its arrival.
To be clear, we do not believe that increasing transparency through a more comprehensive website will be a silver bullet for U.S. development efforts in Pakistan. Nor would such a platform necessarily end all conspiracy theories or the targeting of U.S. aid workers. But as the recent bout of suspicion over Weinsten’s disappearance shows, the lack of widely available information on USAID’s development activities is providing ammunition for its detractors. Investing in transparency would be a good first step towards reducing this suspicion.