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US steps up push for aid recognition in Pakistan

July 20, 2011

In this image taken on July 8, 2011, Pakistani children play cricket in a park planned to be renovated with the help of the USAID in Peshawar, Pakistan. – AP Photo

ISLAMABAD: Desperate to win hearts and minds in Pakistan, the US has begun pushing aid organizations working in the country's most dangerous region along the Afghan border to advertise that they receive American assistance.

The new requirement has disturbed aid groups, which fear their workers providing food, water, shelter and other basic needs to Pakistanis will come under militant attack if they proclaim their US connection.

This fear exists throughout Pakistan but is especially acute in the tribal region, which is the main sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the country.

But US officials in Pakistan are under increasing pressure from Washington to increase the visibility of the country's aid effort to counter rampant anti-American sentiment that can feed support for militants targeting the West.

The focus on branding has become even more intense in the wake of the US Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town on May 2. The covert operation infuriated Pakistanis and strained the relationship so much that the US decided to suspend $800 million in military aid to Pakistan.

The decision does not affect civilian aid and makes the effort to win hearts and minds through that assistance even more important. The US has earmarked $7.5 billion in civilian aid for Pakistan over five years, but it will do little to sway public opinion if Pakistanis don't know where the money is coming from. And there are growing questions in Congress about what US aid in Pakistan is achieving.

“Our mandate is to make sure people here know that they are receiving American assistance,” said one US official in Pakistan. “It’s always a struggle, especially in a country like this with security considerations.”

Previously, because of the militant threat, groups working in the semiautonomous tribal region were exempted from having to brand their projects, a requirement for groups distributing American aid elsewhere in the country.

The US quietly changed its policy toward the tribal region in the fall, and now evaluates each project on a case by case basis, said US officials in Pakistan.

The US has also become less willing to grant waivers to the requirement that it often gave in other parts of the country that have experienced militant violence, such as northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and central Punjab province, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Militants have targeted aid groups in the past. The Pakistani Taliban killed five UN staffers in a suicide attack in 2009 at the office of the World Food Program in Islamabad.

In 2010, militants attacked World Vision, a US-based Christian aid group helping survivors from the 2005 earthquake in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killing six Pakistani employees.

Eleven prominent charities signed a letter last fall asking the US Agency for International Development not to require aid in Pakistan to be branded with the group's red, white and blue logo. The letter was sent by InterAction, an alliance of US-based NGOs.

Joel Charny, vice president for humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, said it has been frustrating to have US officials sitting in a fortified embassy in Islamabad argue that NGO concerns about safety in Pakistan are overblown.

“There was just a complete contradiction between the US’s own security protocols for their employees and their staff and then the risks they were expecting the NGOs to take on in the name of branding and hearts and minds,” said Charny.

The international humanitarian aid group CARE turned down American funding to help people in south Punjab cope with last year's devastating floods because of the US government's branding requirements, the organization said.

Other non-government organizations working in Pakistan that receive American funding declined to comment on the new branding policy, saying the issue was too sensitive and talking about it could put their employees at risk.

Not only does the US require many NGOs to brand their projects with a logo that says “USAID: From the American People,” but US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter decided a few months ago to add the American flag as well to make sure illiterate Pakistanis would know the aid came from the US, said US officials.

Examples of projects in dangerous areas that were branded in this manner include a dam in the South Waziristan tribal area, a teacher's college in the Khyber tribal area and 150 schools in the Malakand area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said US officials. All three areas experience frequent Taliban attacks.

Another initiative handed out livestock to conflict-affected families in the Swat Valley, which was controlled by the Taliban until an army offensive in 2009 and still experiences periodic violence. The livestock all had USAID tags around their necks, including one that read “This goat is from the people of America.”