What Do Pakistan and Afghanistan Have in Common? Two Really Good Studies on How to Improve U.S. Assistance

June 13, 2011

In the space of one week, two studies – one on Pakistan and the other on Afghanistan – were released by two separate entities.  The first study, Beyond Bullets and Bombs: Fixing the U.S. Approach to Development in Pakistan by Nancy Birdsall, Wren Elhai and Molly Kinder, was released after more than a year of work by a CGD-led study group on Pakistan.The second study, Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan, came out one week later by the majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.Even though the environment of Pakistan and Afghanistan differ markedly, as do U.S. goals in each country, it was remarkable to note the similarities in the two sets of recommendations.  And it was reassuring to see that many of those recommendations reflect aid reform concepts that many of us have been advocating.My takeaways from reading the two reports are:

  • Clarify the mission and the purpose of U.S. assistance and distinguish between short term goals (stabilization) and long term goals (economic growth).
  • Clarify who is in charge of development in Washington and the field.  Whole-of-government sounds good, but to make it workable usually requires a whole new level of bureaucracy that in the end weakens development impact.
  • Establish realistic goals and measures for achieving these goals.  The metric of how much money gets spent in a certain amount of time is not a measure of impact, let alone success.
  • The rationale for using aid to win hearts and minds is questionable.  (And isn’t that the job of public diplomacy?)
  • Beware of the unintended consequences of aid programs, which can create unrealistic and unrealized expectations (Pakistan) or overwhelm and distort the economy (Afghanistan).
Both studies are realistic about the inherent problems that affect operations in difficult         environments and advocate for the value of foreign assistance programs done right.  In the end, it’s the “mend it, don’t end it” message that I hope is embraced by both the administration and Congress.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.