The other thing Holbrooke heard was, "You never ask us what we need; you just do these programs that you think we ought to have." This is a longstanding lament, and both the Kerry-Lugar bill and the administration's AfPak strategy stipulate that Pakistanis will play a much larger role in choosing, executing, and monitoring projects than they do now. In part because improving relations with Pakistan is so central to his job, Holbrooke immediately began rejecting contracts USAID had drawn up with U.S. contractors. That didn't sit well with some; a senior USAID official, C. Stuart Callison, wrote an anguished memo to Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of policy planning at the State Department, claiming that the new policy was "shockingly counterproductive" and would subordinate development goals to political considerations.
Political considerations, in a way, are just the point. Aid that harms America's standing -- because Pakistanis see it as highhanded -- is a bad idea even if it works. But it's also true, as Callison wrote, that aid policies that don't produce real change inside Pakistan scarcely advance President Barack Obama's overall counterinsurgency goals. Can America do both? Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan has a real state, a real middle class, a real civil society. But it's hard to find independent actors in so deeply feudal a society. Brian Katulis, a regional expert at the Center for American Progress, says that though going through local NGOs and local government bodies is "the right instinct," he's skeptical that U.S. officials will be able to navigate the political interests of local players to choose people who will actually perform.
Holbrooke is prepared to err on the side of Pakistani engagement. How, after all, can you build local capacity unless you ask people to take responsibility? More to the point, this is what it means to incorporate development assistance into larger foreign-policy goals: If Obama is to overcome the terrible failure of trust with Pakistan, he must not treat Pakistanis as hapless objects of American charity. Pakistan, as the State Department official noted, "has forced a serious re-evaluation of the relevance of aid to our foreign-policy objectives."
Whatever the United States was doing before didn't work for Pakistan, and didn't work for America. Clearly, it's time to try something else. The danger, though, is that Holbrooke will find a way of helping the U.S. image in Pakistan, and thus advance key national security goals, without really producing change inside the country. Perhaps, therefore, Pakistan should force the United States to re-evaluate aid policy even further. Wendy Chamberlin, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, argued in a recent op-ed that aid will continue to fortify Pakistan's deeply entrenched elites unless the United States finds an entirely new way of delivering it; she proposed inviting a wide array of groups and individuals to bid for aid projects, much as the Obama administration is now doing in the education world with its $4.3 billion grant program known as Race to the Top.
A more far-reaching proposal comes from the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank that has proposed (pdf) that funders sign contracts with recipient states in which both sides agree on a specific desired outcome -- say, increasing the reach of basic health services by a fixed percentage -- and then the donor leaves the government wholly free to reach the outcome in any way it sees fit. The donor begins to pay only when the government begins to show results. (A mutually-agreed-upon third party audits the recipient's progress.) "Cash on delivery aid," as authors Nancy Birdsall and William D. Savedoff have dubbed the idea, offers accountability for donors, autonomy for recipients, and transparency for citizens of both countries. A corrupt or incompetent government -- Pakistan's, for example -- could fail to hold up its end of the bargain. But are Americans really prepared to hand over scarce resources to such a state -- even if doing so helps their image?