A FEW weeks before 2016 took its leave, David Hale, the US ambassador to Pakistan, announced that the United States government, via the United States Agency for International Development, would be investing $7.3 billion toward increasing the number of female teachers in Pakistan. The announcement came as part of the 16 days of activism initiative by USAID’s Gender Equity Programme, which the Aurat Foundation is implementing. Around the same time, USAID also signed an agreement with Wapda to provide $81 million for the construction of the Kurram-Tangi Dam that will help generate 18 MW of activity for the Waziristan region.
As the numbers show (and these are not cumulative figures; USAID’s total investment in Pakistan is much larger) USAID invests many millions of dollars in Pakistan, funding a variety of projects and fueling a good portion of Pakistan’s NGO sector. In about 20 days, when President-elect Donald Trump takes office, the future and continuity of these expenditures is in peril. According to an article published in Foreign Policy, officials at USAID had not (until the end of November) been contacted by the new administration. The situation is unexpected; the same official noted that incoming US presidents generally have detailed plans and policy briefs regarding how they want US aid commitments to be disbursed. This means there is little clarity regarding the $34bn dollars that the US Congress has approved as expenditures for USAID in the upcoming fiscal year.
The uncertainty regarding USAID’s future (and consequently the future of its activities in Pakistan) is not limited to delays in communication between the president-elect and the agency. According to foreign policy experts, Trump’s America First doctrine may spell far more drastic changes in US investments in development programmes in the rest of the world. In June 2015, Trump proclaimed that the US should cut off aid to “all the countries that hate us” and use the money to build its own infrastructure. In true Trump style, he backtracked on the statement in April 2016, when he said that the US should continue giving aid to countries like Pakistan because “we don’t want to see total instability”.
Regardless of which of the two statements represents Trump’s actual intentions, the prognosis in general is not a good one. Alex Thier, a development expert writing for DevEx, a development focused website, noted that scrapping USAID and having it absorbed into the State Department has been a recurrent proposal of conservatives in the US. One of the champions of this position was Newt Gingrich, who until a few weeks ago was a frontrunner as Trump’s pick for secretary of state. Even as that points to a less stringent view on foreign aid expenditures, it is unlikely that the large budgets for programmes such as gender equity, capacity building for democracy, etc will keep the same form that they have over the past eight years. Experts note that the positions of Vice President-elect Mike Pence on women’s reproductive rights also mean that funding for family planning programmes around the world is likely to dry up.
Regardless of what represents Trump’s actual intentions, the prognosis is in general not a good one.
The conservatives who are likely to have important roles in the Trump administration will probably recognise that development aid is a means to court and insure the support of other nations and maintain US influence. At the same time, it is possible that they will focus less on ideals and more on whether the countries whose coffers are being filled are delivering what the US demands of them. Focus is likely to be on getting the ‘best deal’ for the US, with little interest in the constraints facing the recipient countries.
As a recipient of USAID funds, Pakistan would be wise to stay warned and ready for the coming future. As money for women focused and gender equity programmes dries up, there is a grave risk for Pakistan’s NGO sector. Women’s organisations that rely significantly on USAID funds to implement programmes should immediately look through their budgets and focus on diversifying their funding base via local donors. Even more importantly, they should make an effort to use the money they have received to build up their cash reserves in the event there is no more money coming in the future.
Even if there are no significant changes in the USAID funding amounts that Pakistan receives, the delays in communication between USAID and the incoming Trump administration portend delays in funding disbursements, programme development and other bureaucratic measures that are essential to USAID projects around the world and in Pakistan. Since thousands of jobs in Pakistan depend on this funding, it is crucial that the government of Pakistan also take note of the issue. NGOs represent a significant economic sector in this country and employ many thousands of people. A crash in Pakistan’s NGO sector would have an impact on many livelihoods, not to mention on the communities that currently benefit from USAID-funded programmes.
Ultimately, of course, the best way forward is to reduce Pakistan’s dependence on foreign aid money in general. As I have noted in many previous articles, while external funding provides crucial resources and is useful and impactful in the immediate term, it is not sustainable. Sustainability depends in a vital sense on a population that pays taxes and does not believe in getting something for nothing. This last premise, sadly, is one that few Pakistanis wish to embrace. The consequence is a country that is dependent, extracting money from richer others, and refusing to invest in itself. The end of USAID disbursements may be the immediate problem, but the root of it all is a stubborn belief that any real national pride can exist along with international beggary.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2017