A Radically Different Way of Bringing U.S. Aid to Pakistan

Traditional aid programs are struggling in the country. But a less conventional program with less conventional goals seems to show a better model.

USAID april27 p.jpg
Three-year-old Phaphol cries as she sits in her family's tent on an embankment at Chandan Mori village. Reuters

In July 2010, heavy rains and devastating flooding in Pakistan displaced upwards of 20 million people. As part of the relief effort, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) swung into action, distributing millions of dollars worth in temporary shelters, food, fresh water, and medical help. It was a stunning display of how quickly the U.S. can mobilize humanitarian relief when disaster strikes.

There was just one problem: a number of the affected Pakistanis didn't seem to want American help. Some expressed being upset at getting huge bags of charity labeled "USA." American aid to Pakistan has been fraught with problems for many years, facing charges of politicization, corruption, and ulterior motives. It was so bad that, by October 2010, the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, a consortium of NGOs that work in Pakistan, submitted an official request to the U.S. government to re-brand their aid. The American label had become a liability.

So while USAID is very good at quickly mobilizing assistance to disaster-afflicted communities, it carries a lot of political baggage -- so much so in places like Pakistan that the U.S might be better off in the long run by downsizing USAID's direct activities there and working through alternative programs.

One good model might be the Rural Support Programmes Network. A sprawling collection of local NGOs, the RSPN was founded by the Agha Khan Network in 1982, and has since become its own, separate program. While the stats about its reach are impressive -- reaching millions of the poorest homes across a vast swath of Pakistan -- what's especially fascinating about RSPN are its methods.

Put simply, RSPN has a different focus than normal aid programs. They emphasize the development of institutions first, and only after that institution is established do they worry about its output or performance. The NGO also heavily invests in the smallest scale of the community, from conceptualization to execution, hiring mostly locals to administer projects. Lastly, they have extraordinarily long project timelines -- sometimes as long as 15 years from start to finish.

Focusing on short term projects is a critical weakness of how the U.S. conducts both warfare and aid. Put simply, you make very different decisions if you have to show progress next year than if you have to show progress next decade. RSPN's longer term focus lets it work on more difficult goals, such as creating institutional capacity that can exist without foreign input. It also means RSPN can build out micro-infrastructure projects like micro-hydro power plants that allow communities to finance their own development -- again, without foreign input.

But the most interesting project RSPN has done in rural Pakistan is a collaborative micro-healthcare insurance system. For very little money -- $3.50 a year in some cases -- poor people can get access to basic medical care (especially maternity care) and assistance if they face hospitalization.

A hyper-local focus on poor, isolated communities has created an unexpected way to provide previously unfathomable sorts of services to the poor at very low cost. The RSPN affiliates who provide microinsurance reach almost a million people, and at very little cost, by employing local community members for expertise, services, and administration.

This structure applies to much of what RSPN does: local projects, run by locals. It is a sharp contrast to even the ostensibly locally focused aid projects administered by U.S. and European NGOs and aid agencies, which focus on establishing a strong presence in capital cities and rely on expensive expatriate administrators. RSPN's local focus carries significant spillover effects in its communities as well: providing opportunities and improving the quality of life makes those communities significantly better off as a consequence. The "brain drain" of young people leaving to find opportunity elsewhere is diminished, and with better health and finances they can develop themselves, without the distorting effect of foreign money.

The Agha Khan Rural Support Programme, which birthed RSPN, has been operating in India for 25 years and sees similar success -- sometimes in collaboration with Pakistani organizations. Te president of Pakistan's Rural Support Programme Network, Shoaib Sultan Khan, routinely visits Indian communities implementing this model, and it has led to a flowering of rural institutions developing India's countryside.

If anything, what the RSPN shows is that focusing on the small scale, and on the hyper-local, is actually a more effective way of developing isolated, poor, rural communities. It makes for a jarring contrast with how USAID operates, with its love of budget-busting showcase projects that are tough to make work and especially to maintain in the long term. Aid agencies would do well to focus on the small, on the achievable, and on the local -- and leave the enormous symbol construction to the local governments.