The South Asia Channel

Sampler Q&A: Behind the Scenes at USAID’s OAPA

On Friday, Jan. 10, 2013, Donald "Larry" Sampler Jr. was sworn in as the Assistant to the Administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs (OAPA) at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), officially taking over responsibility for two countries with the largest USAID budgets. Prior to being sworn in, he spoke with ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Friday, Jan. 10, 2013, Donald "Larry" Sampler Jr. was sworn in as the Assistant to the Administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs (OAPA) at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), officially taking over responsibility for two countries with the largest USAID budgets. Prior to being sworn in, he spoke with Foreign Policy‘s South Asia Channel, answering a number of reader questions about the agency’s successes and struggles over the past 12 years, concerns over how U.S. taxpayer money is being spent in the region, and the intersection of military and development assistance in conflict areas.

Question 1: Taking over USAID’s Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs as the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, what would you consider USAID’s biggest successes in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last 12 years? What were the organization’s biggest struggles?

The American people have many reasons to be proud of what their development dollars have achieved in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, Afghans can expect to live an average of 20 years longer than they did in 2001, when life expectancy was only 42 years.  That’s astounding.  In Pakistan, where electricity blackouts can last up to 16 hours a day even in urban areas, one of our biggest successes is that the U.S. investment has added 1,000 megawatts to Pakistan’s national grid — enough electricity for more than 16 million Pakistanis. These two examples are the tip of the iceberg toward reducing extreme poverty and promoting a more stable environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

One of the greatest enduring challenges we face is reminding people in the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan that we continue to make tremendous development progress despite the ups and downs in our relationships with these sovereign countries.

Question 2: It seems like everyone has an opinion on U.S. aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it may not always be based on fact or match the reality on the ground. What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about the aid programs you’re managing in both countries?

Unfortunately, one of the biggest misconceptions seems to be that our tax dollars haven’t made a difference. I know that’s not true, because I have seen the impact our work has on the ground and the changes since my first visit to the region in 2002. Afghanistan now has 8 million students in school, including over 2.5 million girls, and access to reliable power has tripled. Development aid is helping Afghans and Pakistanis lift themselves out of extreme poverty and is vital to our national security.

This is one of the most unstable regions in the world. It is in our national interest to shape the future in a way that promotes stability, free markets, and a healthy, educated population.

Question 3: Some of our readers voiced concerns that the billions of dollars the United States is spending on an annual basis in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not being spent or monitored appropriately. As the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan continues, what steps do you think need to be taken to ensure the money is being spent wisely and used for its intended purpose?

I’m glad readers asked this question, because accountability is kind of an obsession for me. A top priority is ensuring U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly. Over the past three or four years, USAID has improved its ability to measure the impact of our development investments. That’s how we know that life expectancy has skyrocketed in Afghanistan and energy is reaching many more people in Pakistan. 

We’ve also become very good at quickly improving or — in extreme cases — terminating projects that are not performing to the level of our expectations. In Pakistan, for example, USAID worked with Transparency International [a non-governmental organization that monitors and publicizes corporate and political corruption in international development] to create a multi-lingual Anti-Fraud hotline that allows Pakistanis to report allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse in USAID projects. The hotline has led both to altering and terminating programs that weren’t performing to our high standards.

Question 4: Some of our readers felt that civilian aid to countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan has become increasingly militarized, with U.S. forces taking over areas of effort that have long been the domain of development agencies like USAID. Are there any plans to address this perceived imbalance as the war in Afghanistan comes to an end? If so, how will it affect USAID projects in the greater South Asian region?

As someone who has spent my career both in the military and the development world, I know that working closely with our military partners presents both challenges and opportunities. Our approaches can be different, but in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other complex environments, USAID’s partnership with the military has been critical to increasing stability and reducing poverty.

In the early phase of a conflict, military forces often have the unique resources and ability to implement immediate solutions on the ground. But it is equally important to transition these initiatives to long-term, sustainable approaches. In Afghanistan, coalition forces have already transferred many functions to the appropriate Afghan entities, while the assistance focus is transitioning to more sustainable development.

Question 5: As the United States begins to reduce its force level in Afghanistan, some commentators have noted that India may step in to play a larger role in Afghanistan. What kind of development role do you see India playing in the region, both now and in the future?

Afghanistan is uniquely situated in a region with significant economic and energy opportunities.  With two major populous countries, India and Pakistan, to its east, the natural resource-rich countries of Central Asia to its north, and beyond that the large markets of China and Russia, Afghanistan could potentially become a major regional trade and transit hub. India is a particularly important partner for Afghanistan. As a stable democracy with a modernizing economy, it is both an aspirational model for Afghanistan and a potential huge market for high-value Afghan goods and commodities. USAID has been working with the Afghan government and private sector to strengthen ties with neighboring countries, including India. We have supported exchanges between ministries, entrepreneurs, chambers of commerce, and women’s organizations. In December 2013, the United States and India jointly supported an Innovation Fair in Kabul that brought Indian firms with successful and unique business models in health, education, agriculture, and other sectors to Afghanistan to share their approaches. USAID is also part of a trilateral effort with Afghanistan and India for a women’s empowerment program in partnership with [the Self Employed Women’s Association] SEWA, the largest women’s non-governmental organization in India.

Question 6: What are your main priorities for USAID in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2014? Are there any areas or programs in particular that you will be focusing on more than others? If so, why?

Our strategy in Afghanistan during the transition will focus on maintaining gains made in health, education, and the empowerment of women; mitigating the economic impact of the drawdown by building capacity in other areas, such as agriculture and infrastructure; and supporting capacity building initiatives with the Afghan government. Sustainable economic growth and a favorable regulatory environment for business and trade, along with an increasingly accountable and transparent Afghan government, will help lay the foundation for durable economic growth, and will enable the Afghan government to take increasing responsibility for key services currently supported by donor funding. Across our programming, USAID will continue to focus on women and young people, and will continue to target basic quality of life issues, including nutrition and access to clean water and sanitation.

In Pakistan, we remain committed to our priority sectors: energy, economic growth and agriculture, stabilization, education and health. When we met with Pakistani Prime Minister [Nawaz] Sharif during his visit to the United States last year in October, he shared these priorities as well. Together, the governments of the United States and Pakistan announced a new hydroelectric and irrigation project, which will add additional megawatts to Pakistan’s grid and irrigate land for farmers in an area vulnerable to extremism, as well as the USAID Reading Initiative, which is aimed at helping over 3.2 million Pakistani school children learn to read. Both projects will be fully underway in 2014. 

A common thread throughout our programs in both Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue to be a focus on results and oversight of taxpayer dollars.

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