The South Asia Channel

Building, not buying trust in Pakistan

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Pakistan, which culminated today in a full schedule of official meetings and town hall appearances, was the United States’ best chance to hit the reset button with the Pakistani people. Clinton arrived with a long list of ‘deliverables’ — a total of $500 million in new development ...

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Pakistan, which culminated today in a full schedule of official meetings and town hall appearances, was the United States’ best chance to hit the reset button with the Pakistani people. Clinton arrived with a long list of ‘deliverables’ — a total of $500 million in new development projects, aligned with the priorities of the Pakistani government. And she was clear on what that aid was intended to accomplish. At one town hall meeting today, she used the metaphor of a rocket to illustrate her mission: "We’re trying to escape the bonds of gravity, leave behind an era of mistrust and launch a new period of cooperation."

But the United States is not loved in Pakistan, and even those Pakistanis who heard what Clinton had to say are likely to be skeptical. They can see clearly the pressure the United States is placing on the Pakistani government to do more to rein in the Haqqani network and other extremist groups. They may well doubt that the United States has the political and financial will to back its commitment to development support. Even the $7.5 billion of aid authorized over five years by the Kerry-Lugar legislation must be appropriated and spent one year at a time, after all. And the U.S. has a history of abandoning aid commitments to Pakistan when incoming governments violated nuclear norms, or when a bulwark against communism didn’t seem to matter as much. As understandable as some of these decisions were at the time, they seem to make it clear that U.S. development aid was driven as much or more by diplomatic imperatives as by a long-run development vision for the Pakistani people.

So, nice words that carry the scent of a short-term quid pro quo exchange will likely be met unfavorably by a wary Pakistani public. While glitzy ribbon cutting ceremonies might make this visit seem like a success, the needle of public opinion won’t truly shift until Pakistanis trust that the United States is on the same page regarding the ultimate goal of enduring economic and social progress.

How could Clinton start to build that common ground? How could she be more convincing that the United States is committed to a Pakistan where, five or ten years from now, life is better than it is today? (Note: the Kerry-Lugar legislation includes the possibility of a five-year extension, if things go well.) First, she should declare, unequivocally, that the goal of the U.S. aid program is Pakistan’s own long-term development. Second, she should lay out a clear and compelling vision of what that means — supported by specific examples and indicators of success. Third, together with the Pakistani government, she should commit to measure progress against those indicators and provide useful information to ordinary Pakistanis about the issues that they care most about.

Here are the key points that Clinton could deliver to the Pakistani people to get this development mission off the ground:

  • The U.S. aid program in Pakistan is intended, above all else, to help the government of Pakistan finance and deliver the key services that Pakistanis want. The U.S. will know mutual goals are being met when more children are completing primary school, when power outages are no longer a daily occurrence, when all children are vaccinated against preventable diseases, and when households and small farmers have reasonable access to water.
  • Starting now, the U.S. will work with the federal and provincial governments to measure these things and report progress against them periodically to the peoples of Pakistan and of the United States. Ultimately, parents should know if schools in their village are doing better or worse than in other villages. Businesses, workers, and households should know exactly how planned power outages will affect them, and should be informed when the situation improves. Farmers should know how their yields compare to others in their area, and what they could do to produce more. And all citizens should know if the government is doing its part to collect tax revenues — from everyone in a fair and progressive way — and spend them on vitally needed development projects.
  • In the spirit of transparency, the U.S. will report every three months the amount of money it disburses to help Pakistan’s government in these areas, though the focus should be not on how much money is being spent by the United States or by Pakistan, but on the results that money is producing.
  • The United States shares Pakistan’s interest in a more prosperous Pakistan and in rapid progress on these key indicators of well-being. U.S. support is contingent on nothing other than transparency about these programs and the Pakistani government’s continuing commitment to these or other agreed goals. This is how Pakistanis will see whether the U.S. is living up to its commitments and whether they are making a difference.

Our organization’s first open letter to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke contains the recommendation that is at the heart of this plan for action. It suggests that, in order to focus attention on the development goals that really matter, the United States should work with the government of Pakistan to choose a limited set of simple indicators, such as the ones described above. Regularly collecting and sharing information on development progress — as measured by these indicators — would be a way to show the Pakistani public that the U.S.’s pledge to long-term development goes beyond mere rhetoric. And the flow of information this effort creates would be a powerful tool to allow Pakistani citizens to have a greater voice in demanding better from their own government.

At a joint news conference with Clinton today, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi declared, "The opinion about the United States in Pakistan will change when the people of Pakistan see how, through this partnership, their lives have changed." But without articulating a vision that resonates with the Pakistani people of what that hoped-for change is coupled with a concrete plan for evaluating progress — even the announcement of large aid projects is likely to be seen through the lens of the unsteady deal-making that has characterized the U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan in the past. When launching into space, what matters is not just how big and expensive your rocket is. You also need to know what planet you are aiming for.

Nancy Birdsall is president of the Center for Global Development and chair of the CGD Study Group on a U.S. Development Strategy in Pakistan. Molly Kinder is a Senior Policy Analyst and Wren Elhai is a Research and Communications Assistant at the Center for Global Development.

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