Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with Alex Thier, assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development. They discuss the level of U.S. aid to communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as relations between the U.S. and each government fluctuate.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Alex Thier is the assistant to the administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development or USAID. He just returned from Pakistan, where his organization helps manage several infrastructure projects. I asked him if the recent attacks against the health workers have undermined the work of American aid agencies in Pakistan.
ALEX THIER: This attack was an absolute tragedy and it does impact us all. We have thousands of Pakistani partners all over the country implementing programs. And we have a lot of concern about their safety. The good news is that we have dealt with such challenges in the past. And the key, I think, to being able to implement programs like this - in challenging security environments - is to have a good link with the community. Because when you have a community on your side, ultimately they will be the most forceful in protecting programs.
MARTIN: Obviously here in Washington, we're all transfixed by the budget debate that's happening on Capitol Hill. How do you rebut criticisms that the U.S. is spending, over the course of several years, billions of dollars in aid to build up the Pakistani economy when, at the same time, the U.S. is struggling to bolster its own very fragile economic recovery?
THIER: You know, I think when you look at the history of the region and U.S. engagement in the region, particularly since September 11th, our investment in Pakistan, our engagement in Pakistan, is seen by everybody across the political spectrum in the United States as an investment worth making. Problems in Pakistan affect the region, affect the world, and affect the United States.
MARTIN: Have you been able to mitigate against corruption? Can you make sure that the dollars that are allocated to a specific project actually get there?
THIER: We all know that in a country like Pakistan there are challenges with corruption. But rather than throwing up our hands, what we do is set up a system that very carefully vets any institution that is going to receive taxpayer dollars.
There have been problems in the past but the good news is I believe that there have been very few problems. And in those cases where there have been questions, we follow them up very aggressively. We, in fact, funded a hotline - a corruption hotline in Pakistan - so that people who have concerns about any kind of assistance program can call-in. And we set up an entire unit to follow up and investigate those calls.
MARTIN: Have you shut down projects as a result of this?
THIER: It has a caused us to shut down projects, but it has caused the Pakistani government to investigate certain individuals who were accused of corruption.
MARTIN: How do you navigate what appeared to be contradictory missions sometimes in Pakistan, while the U.S. is using drones, conducting drone strikes along the Afghan-Pakistan border and, at the same time, building wells; seeming to take with one hand and give with the other? Does that make your work more difficult?
THIER: Our mission in Pakistan is really to support the broader and long-term picture of developing a stable Pakistan that is economically viable, internally peaceful and at peace with its neighbors. And I think that these investments that the American people are making in Pakistan will be critical, both for Pakistan stability and also for our security and well-being here in the United States.
MARTIN: When you're walking around those villages, when you're checking in on these projects, do Pakistanis come up to you and raise concerns about the military strikes that the U.S. wages in their communities?
THIER: The engagement that I have with ordinary Pakistanis - and I've had the opportunity to meet thousands in these trips - there's almost always been a positive one.
MARTIN: So they think compartmentalize apparently the different agendas?
THIER: It's certainly not something they address with me, no.
MARTIN: What is the relationship with the larger Pakistani federal government? Pakistan is considered a fair-weather ally at best. Is that how the relationship is when it comes to aid? Or is it better or is it worse?
THIER: We have worked very hard over the last two years, as the relationship has weathered some serious ups and downs, to ensure that the civilian assistance relationship that we have with Pakistan has continued. And as a result of that not having paused, even in the most challenging times, we are able today to be able to show that we've been able to deliver a lot through this program.
When I was just in Pakistan, I had a chance with the new secretary of water and power, a woman named Nargis Sethi. One of the biggest challenges that we face in Pakistan, and the Pakistani people face, is the energy sector. They have had an ongoing energy crisis. And she's told me how she got the distribution companies on the phone every day taking care of every megawatt that goes through their system.
and when we have activist partners in the government of Pakistan like that, people who really care about these issues and are motivated to take their own problems in hand, then we are much more likely to be successful in dealing with the challenges that Pakistan faces.
MARTIN: Alex Thier, he's and expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Agency for National Development.
Alex, thanks so much for talking with us.
THIER: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.