On October 15, 2009, the day President Barack Obama signed the Kerry-Lugar-Berman (KLB) Bill into law, I found myself at a dinner party in Islamabad. I sidled up to one of Pakistan’s most learned journalists and referenced the furore that had erupted over the law’s alleged encroachments on Pakistani sovereignty. Surely, I said to him, this fuss over KLB would die down soon?
The sagacious scribe shook his head slowly. “Not for a long time,” he said.
More than two years after the bill’s passage, the fuss still hasn’t died down. For Pakistanis, ‘KLB’ has become code for all that is wrong with US policies in Pakistan: it is insincere, out of touch, opaque and meddling. And in the aftermath of the recent Nato-triggered mayhem in Mohmand, calls for rejecting US aid — including the $1.5 billion per year in development assistance promised by KLB — will undoubtedly grow more strident.
Pakistanis have every right to be unhappy about KLB; after all, much of the promised aid has not been disbursed. Yet so intense is the anti-KLB sentiment that some of the facts about the law — not to mention the benefits it can provide to Pakistanis — have been eclipsed by myths and misinformation. A new Woodrow Wilson Centre report, Aiding Without Abetting: Making Civilian Assistance to Pakistan Work for Both Sides, which I helped produce, seeks to set the record straight on four myths in particular.
KLB aid is conditional: This is only partially true. The legislation authorises both security and non-security assistance and only the former contains conditions. The infamous ‘limitations on assistance’ clause — that is, certifications by the secretary of state that Pakistan is making progress on counterterrorism and that the military is not ‘subverting’ the political process — are all found in Title II of the law, which deals uniquely with security aid. Those narratives about KLB withholding economic assistance unless Pakistan alters the civil-military balance — pure fiction.
Terminating KLB would have no effect on Pakistan’s economy: This one is tougher to shatter. After all, $1.5 billion amounts to only $8 per capita and cancelling it would diminish Pakistan’s GDP growth by less than 0.2 per cent. However, due to its budget crunch, Islamabad is not funding development programmes on its own; US monies, for example, provide the bulk of support for the Benazir Income Support Programme. Additionally, while Pakistan’s economy depends heavily on remittances from abroad, anecdotal research gathered for our report finds that the Gulf countries are starting to refuse to renew contracts for Pakistani workers. Finally, there is little reason to believe that the likes of Riyadh or Beijing — whose aid to Pakistan pales in comparison to Washington’s — would increase their contributions if US funding were to cease.
It’s all USAID’s fault: We have all heard the stories about unqualified USAID mission staff, mind-numbing bureaucracy and refusals to understand local circumstances. However, KLB’s delays and dysfunction can also be attributed to the plodding and convoluted US interagency aid approval process, which requires a dizzying array of pre-disbursement certifications and sign-offs. The delays can also be traced to intervening events such as last year’s devastating floods, which obliged Washington to reallocate KLB-envisioned funds to humanitarian relief.
KLB is dead in the water: To be sure, the US civilian aid programme will be hard-pressed to succeed as currently structured and the prevailing political climate in both countries is not conducive for maintaining it. Yet, it is too early to sound the death knell. KLB can still work if it is reoriented to emphasise small-scale, urban-based projects — such as support for basic municipal services (including electricity), literacy certification and vocational training for poor urbanites and youth-focused city-based community organisations. These efforts are cheaper and less dependent on middlemen than are large infrastructure projects — hence they are less susceptible to corruption. For this to be successful, however, both sides must pledge to shield economic aid from the hostilities and suspicions emanating from the bilateral security relationship.
KLB, though troubled, is well-intentioned. The least we can do — Americans and Pakistanis alike — is better understand it.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 9th, 2011.