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Last year my former colleagues Molly Kinder and Wren Elhai joined Nancy Birdsall for a listening tour in Pakistan that sought to gather input from a range of experts for CGD’s June 2011 report on the U.S. assistance program there. Last month, in support of CGD’s upcoming follow-up report on status of the program in 2012, I travelled to Pakistan for another round of discussions.

The trip allowed me to interview Pakistani government officials, journalists, academics, and members of the NGO, donor and business communities about the current state of the U.S. development program in their country. It also gave me a chance to follow up with many of the experts who had contributed to CGD’s previous work on this topic. Besides being interested in what had changed since our last Pakistan report came out, I wanted to know whether people felt that key development issues were improving or getting worse, and what role the U.S. government played in those changes. Since this constitutes a broad, and rather abstract problem set, I chose to focus my interviews and discussions on two of USAID’s five priority sectors, energy and education. (For the full story, stay tuned for our upcoming report, due to be published next month).

As a bonus, the trip also provided a chance for me to go home for the first time in several years. I grew up in north-western Pakistan and have worked there intermittently since coming to the United States for college. During this trip, I was able go on a short hike with my family in the Kaghan valley, and attended the wedding of a childhood friend. It was good to be back!

Over the course of my first week and a half in country, I travelled from my home in the north-west to Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, conducting interviews in each city. From Karachi, I wrote a quick update to my colleagues back in Washington with some initial impressions of my discussions up to that point. Re-reading that email, I thought that some readers of this blog might find it interesting. The email is reprinted (with some edits) below.

Dear Nancy and Milan,

It's been a great trip! I've been able to meet with a broad range of people who have provided some fantastic insight into the U.S. assistance program here. I won't go into detail on who all I've met, but there are a few things that are becoming obvious already:

a) USAID's brand in Pakistan is at an all-time low. Almost everyone I speak with begins by ranting about what a terrible job they think the United States is doing here. Sometimes this relates to specific issues, but more often the complaints are voiced through broad generalizations: “they hire the wrong people,” “they waste too much money,” “they don't know how to work in Pakistan,” etc. Interestingly, these sentiments are particularly virulent in Islamabad and Lahore, noticeably less so in Karachi. USAID certainly has a lot of problems here, but it seems that they're getting too little credit for the (few) things they're doing well.

b) Conversely, DFID has great brand value. Again, this occasionally relates to specific projects, but more often interviewees cite DFID's “overall approach” or tend to generalize. This may be at least partly because DFID have a very clear Pakistan strategy, which focuses largely on education, and well-publicized. The CEO of a Pakistani development organization put it this way: “I don’t agree with everything DFID is doing here, but at least I know what they plan to do. That means we can have a conversation.”

c) USAID and the State Dept. have differing views on the purpose of the civilian assistance program in Pakistan, which is causing some tension. It’s worrying that after 3 years of KLB programming, there’s still a lack of uniform vision for how the funding should be spent. State Dept. officials told me they were frustrated because they felt that U.S. assistance should have both economic (development) and political objectives, but that USAID only focuses on the economic ones. USAID officials are annoyed by what they interpret as State Dept. meddling with their development programs in an effort to achieve “impact” and win political good will.

d) USAID is behind the curve on basic education. While here, I’ve been introduced to several exciting Pakistani- and donor-led initiatives that use low-cost private schooling and public-private partnerships, but USAID isn't involved in them. More than a third of Pakistani children are currently educated in low-cost private schools, but to date, USAID has not done any work in this area. In addition, USAID’s public sector programming appears to lack coherence and an overall strategic objective. That said, USAID officers with whom I met are aware that the education program needs to be refocused, and are talking about new programs that can engage the private sector, especially in Punjab.

e) USAID's energy program is getting a lot of things right, but they aren't getting very much credit for it. In my interviews I have found that both government and private sector “industry insiders” have a much greater appreciation for USAID’s work than generalists. However, there is potential for the United States to do more. Everyone seems to have ideas about how U.S. funding could usefully increase supply or decrease distribution losses. It’s difficult to tell how much of this is practical, but at least USAID’s brand appears to be much better in this sector.

f) In the both the energy and education programs the most significant constraints to progress revolve around issues of governance and the political will to make difficult reforms (rationalizing tariffs, rightsizing state-owned enterprises, firing bad teachers, reducing absenteeism). On education, DFID has a variety of creative approaches to engage with reformers. USAID seems more risk averse and wants to provide assistance where it is as "technical" and apolitical as possible. I can understand why they're doing this, but it appears to be reducing their effectiveness.

That’s all for now. I’ll provide a full report from Islamabad next week.

Regards,

Danny