WYSO

Among Pakistanis, Perception Of U.S. Aid Varies

Jun 3, 2011
Originally published on June 6, 2011 3:51 pm

The United States has spent more than $20 billion on Pakistan over the past decade, prompting some Americans to ask what they are getting for the money. America is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, and after the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Pakistani politicians unleashed a wave of criticism of the United States.

To understand why U.S. aid has not made more friends, NPR went to the gates of Forman Christian College in Lahore, founded for Christian and Muslim students by the Presbyterian Church and in recent years financed in part by the U.S. government.

Because it's a tense moment in Pakistan, it took time to clear security and be allowed on campus. At the college gate, Iman Taha, who wore a half-sleeve shirt and her hair in a ponytail, told a story about one of her classes.

"We are discussing the issue of sovereignty of Pakistan: Is Pakistan a sovereign state or not?" she said "And most of us, you know, we believe that we are not sovereign, just because of the interference of the United States in our personal affairs, in our political affairs, in our economy, military, everything."

When asked what she thought of U.S. aid to Pakistan, Taha said: "Aid is not meant to control the people, right? Just give us aid, and don't take anything in return."

The conversation continued in a waiting room, where Taha beckoned passing students into the discussion. We sat in a circle as a ceiling fan stirred the heavy air.

Taseer initially was reluctant to talk, calling his views on the subject "very extreme." But Taha intervened and persuaded him to speak.

Taseer talked about the book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by author John Perkins, who claimed the U.S. was plotting dominance over other nations.

Hundreds of students on this campus receive scholarships partly financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. But Taseer says most U.S. aid goes to the Pakistan military.

"I've never seen a single dollar being spent on health or education apart from whatever military aid we're getting," he said.

Not every student in the circle was unhappy. One of them said she's "totally the opposite.

"I'm in favor of America, and I love America — that's it."

But a study released this week by the Center for Global Development found widespread Pakistani discontent with U.S. aid. It's a tough moment for the U.S. to work on its image, said Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani writer and development consultant.

"There have been events in the relationship that have poisoned the ability of the U.S. government and the State Department in particular to transform this no matter how much money they spend," Zaidi said.

Consider CIA contractor Ray Davis, who was accused of killing two Pakistanis this year.

"Ray Davis was a big event. Of course, the bin Laden raid was a huge event," Zaidi said. "And what's happening domestically as a result of those two events, you know, the fallout, is really there's an internal conversation within Pakistan, and that conversation is about whether the people of Pakistan get to decide what's good for them or whether a bunch of generals and a few myopic and venal politicians get to decide what's best for them."

The U.S. says it wants to improve conditions in Pakistan and stabilize it in the long term — whether or not Pakistanis like the U.S.

Under a law known as the Kerry-Lugar bill, the U.S. has committed billions to civilian aid in the coming years. Authorities are planning to pay for electric power generation, schools and sanitation. But when Pakistanis are asked if they're ungrateful, they point out that the spending has begun slowly.

"It may be quicker for us to do it, say, with an American contracting firm, but that will not build the capacity or empower Pakistani organizations to take responsibility for these fundamental concerns," said Andrew Sisson, an official at the U.S. Embassy who wants to train Pakistan's government to complete projects on its own.

Sisson acknowledges that motive — to empower Pakistani organizations — has slowed down the distribution of the Kerry-Lugar money.

"I work with impatient people — both in our country and in Pakistan," he said.

U.S. aid officials are trying to think about developing Pakistan over years, but they are squeezed between American policymakers who want results now, Pakistanis who need results now, and a degree of competition for Pakistan's attention — including from China.

Inside Forman Christian College in Lahore, students played basketball or cricket on a Friday afternoon. One called the U.S. involvement in Pakistan "pathetic." Another said Pakistanis don't like Americans "because the fundamental thinking says that Americans are not in the favor of Pakistan."

One student, Anwar ul-Haq, said there should be contact between the U.S. government and Pakistani people "because Americans are perceived very wrong by the people."

Haq said the U.S. is perceived the wrong way precisely because it is trying to support the Pakistani government, which the people despise.

"We hate our leaders," he said.

Because the Americans are seen as a dominant power, they're blamed for what goes wrong. The U.S. is also blamed for its slow progress, though the students can see some evidence of past American efforts — including the Peter H. Armacost Science Building on campus, which was built with the assistance of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Although they are frustrated, the students understand their country could use American help.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne with Mary Louise Kelly in Washington.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

We spent a while at the college gate. It's tense right now in Pakistan, and it takes time to clear security. We got talking to Iman Taha, a student waiting for a ride. She told a story about one of her classes.

IMAN TAHA: We are discussing the issue of sovereignty of Pakistan - is Pakistan a sovereign state or not - in our classes these days. And most of us, you know, we believe that we are not sovereign, just because of the interference of the United States in our personal affairs, in our political affairs, in our economy, military, everything.

INSKEEP: You say this is being discussed in classes by the students. Are the professors leading this discussion?

TAHA: Yes. Our assignment basically in political science.

INSKEEP: What do you think about American aid to Pakistan?

TAHA: Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: A security guard interrupted our discussion here. He didn't like where we were standing. So we moved into a waiting room to sit down, because Iman Taha was not finished talking.

TAHA: It adds to the disgrace of the country when we take aid from America.

INSKEEP: So you'd rather not take the money if you have to give up something in return.

TAHA: No, it's not called aid then. It's like a business then.

INSKEEP: Assalamu alaikum(ph). Are these more people who would like to join us? What's your name?

INSKEEP: (Unintelligible) I would like - I wouldn't want to comment on that, my comments are very - too - very extreme (unintelligible) I wouldn't like to comment on that.

INSKEEP: He said he didn't want to comment, but Iman Taha intervened again, persuading him to speak. He talked about the book "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man," by an American who claimed the U.S. was plotting dominance of other nations. He is aware that students on this very campus receive scholarships partly financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Yet he also knows that most U.S. aid goes to Pakistan's military.

TASSER: I've never seen a single dollar being spent on health, or education apart from whatever military aid we're getting.

INSKEEP: You're saying that you have seen the aid spent here on campus, right?

TASSER: One campus. One campus. Don't try to twist my words around. One campus saw, I've seen the aid work on.

INSKEEP: Unidentified Woman: I'm totally the opposite.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: I'm in favor of America, and I love America, that's it.

INSKEEP: But a study out this week from the Center for Global Development found widespread Pakistani discontent with U.S. aid. It's a tough moment for the U.S. to work on its image. That's what we heard from the Pakistani writer and development consultant Mosharref Zaidi.

MOSHARREF ZAIDI: There have been events in the relationship that have poisoned the ability of the U.S. government and the State Department in particular to transform this no matter how much money they spend.

INSKEEP: Ray Davis.

ZAIDI: Ray Davis was a big event. Of course, the bin Laden raid was a huge event. And what's happening domestically as a result of those two events, you know, the fallout, is really there's an internal conversation within Pakistan, and that conversation is about whether the people of Pakistan get to decide what's good for them or whether a bunch of generals and a few myopic and venal politicians get to decide what's best for them.

INSKEEP: At the U.S. Embassy, we met Andrew Sisson, an official who wants to train Pakistan's government to complete projects on its own.

ANDREW SISSON: It may be quicker for us to do it with, say, an American contracting firm, but that will not build the capacity or empower Pakistani organizations to take responsibility for these fundamental concerns.

INSKEEP: Has that slowed down the distribution of the Kerry-Lugar money?

SISSON: Yes.

INSKEEP: Do the ends and means match up here? Because it sounds like you're thinking about a better country five years from now or 10 years from now. And you have policymakers who want things out of Pakistan right this minute.

SISSON: It is a very...

INSKEEP: You're smiling.

SISSON: Yes, I am because I work with impatient people, both our country and in Pakistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE)

INSKEEP: So American aid officials are trying to think in terms of developing this country over years, but they're squeezed between American policymakers who want results now, Pakistanis who need results now, and a degree of competition for Pakistan's attention.

ZAIDI: Pakistan-China Friendship Center - the Chinese built this. And everybody who drives along this busy road sees that sign.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL BOUNCING)

INSKEEP: Let's return for a moment to Forman Christian College in Lahore, where we met with students at the gate. Later, we made our way inside, where students played basketball or cricket on a Friday afternoon. Some gathered to meet with us.

BENISHA KUBA: My name is Benisha Kuba. I'm 20 years old and I'm doing biotechnology.

INSKEEP: Unidentified Man #3: My name is (unintelligible) and I'm majoring in psychology.

INSKEEP: Unidentified Woman #3: People in Pakistan don't like Americans because the fundamental thinking says that Americans are not in the favor of Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Unidentified Woman: People say that. We're not sure...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

INSKEEP: I guess he's alive. It's my perception that he's alive.

INSKEEP: : But I think that our involvement - there should be a contact between the government of America and the people of Pakistan, because the Americans are perceived very wrong by the people.

INSKEEP: Anwar says America is perceived the wrong way precisely because it is trying to support the Pakistani government, which the people despise.

SISSON: : They hate like America the same way like their leaders. We hate our leaders.

INSKEEP: Unidentified People: Everyone.

INSKEEP: Unidentified Woman: Biotechnology.

INSKEEP: And what do you think?

INSKEEP: What I think about that building?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

USA: It's a good building for biotechnology because they provide all the facilities in it, what we get from USA or America.

INSKEEP: Unidentified Woman: I'm not against America because we are dependent on America.

INSKEEP: In fact, many of these students say they'd like to move to America when they graduate. These Pakistani students are counting on the United States, even when their governments don't get along.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.