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
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.