U.S. Foreign Aid to Pakistan: In Perspective

Clear information on the types and amounts of aid given by the US to Pakistan has been notably absent from public discourse.

May 11, 2011
Dustin Homer

Note: A version of this article was originally posted on May 11th. Due to technical issues with blogger.com, this article is a repeat of that posted last week.

In the wake of the recent discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, a “wide range of powerful lawmakers” are debating whether continued US foreign assistance to a so-called “unreliable ally” like Pakistan is appropriate (Politico). Several notable members of Congress have threatened major cuts to the billions of foreign aid slated for Pakistan in the coming years.

Responding to this sudden backlash, Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Developmentexplains that the debate “misunderstands the purpose of development assistance” and that cutting aid to Pakistan could have irreparable international consequences. She posits that “aid cannot buy leverage” and that US aid instead promotes Pakistani stability and regional security.

Whether or not aid really can be used as “leverage,” US policymakers will be considering the future of Pakistan-bound aid in coming weeks. Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas) introduced the “Pakistan Foreign Aid Accountability Act” last week, which “prohibit[s] any foreign aid from being sent to Pakistan until it can demonstrate that it had no knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.” At face value, these measures may seem logical, but they fail to account for the potential repercussions of halting Pakistani aid. Moreover, clear information on the types and amounts of aid given by the US to Pakistan has been notably absent from public discourse.

Estimates put the total US aid figure – including both military and development aid – around $20 billion since 9/11. Now, both military and economic aid may end up on the Congressional chopping block. While the AidData database does not include information on military aid (see a summary here), it provides a helpful snapshot of the development assistance allocated to Pakistan over the last decade. Actually, the US has provided a total of just over $4 billion in non-military development assistance between 2001 and 2008. For comparison, Egypt, another strategic US ally, received about $3.6 billion in development aid over the same period. India, Pakistan’s neighbor and main regional competitor, garnered just over $1 billion in US assistance. Here’s a look at US development aid to Pakistan sector-by-sector:

We see that a large portion of this aid – roughly $0.75 billion – has gone toward governance and civil-society-building initiatives. Nearly a third of the aid has helped Pakistan service its large debts. And almost half a billion dollars have gone to improve education, with similar amounts directed toward health and humanitarian relief. Considering Pakistan’s recent history of instability, the apparent US prioritization of democracy/governance-building and education initiatives seems especially appropriate. As Dr. Birdsall suggests, ending this kind of stability-enhancing assistance could be very detrimental for Pakistan, the region, and the world at large.

So, the question arises, will US lawmakers make important aid decisions without sufficient information? It is critical for US citizens and policymakers to understand the nature of development assistance being sent to Pakistan before making major judgments, with potentially far-reaching consequences, about the future of such aid. Good data coupled with good analysis (like an upcoming CGD report described here) are the real key to better policies for US aid to Pakistan.

Dustin Homer is the former Director of Engagement and Partnerships at Development Gateway. 

Dustin Homer, a former AidData researcher, is a project manager at BYU’s Political Economy and Development Lab.