Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Guest Post: Daniel Markey on No Exit from Pakistan

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
October 15, 2013

An internally displaced girl at a UN refugee camp outside of Islamabad, Pakistan, May 2009 (Courtesy Reuters/Faisal Mahmood). An internally displaced girl at a UN refugee camp outside of Islamabad, Pakistan, May 2009 (Courtesy Reuters/Faisal Mahmood).


This guest post is from my colleague, Daniel Markey, a Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Here he discusses his latest book: No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad.

In the time it took to research and write my latest book, No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, Washington’s mood toward Pakistan shifted dramatically. At the beginning of the Barack Obama administration, U.S. policymakers were eager to cooperate with the newly-elected civilian government in Islamabad. The popular belief was that Washington needed to adopt a “transformational” strategy that went beyond “transactional” dealings; or, to put it bluntly, Washington should assist Pakistan’s civilians to build a healthier, U.S.-friendly democratic system, rather than attempting to buy cooperation from Pakistan’s military dictators.

By the end of 2012, however, the pervasive view was similar to that expressed by then-New York Congressman Gary Ackerman: “Pakistan is like a black hole for American aid. Our tax dollars go in, our diplomats go in (sometimes), our aid professionals go in (sometimes), our hopes go in, our prayers go in. Nothing good comes out.” That attitude reflected a deep frustration with Pakistan’s government, particularly after the May 2011 Osama bin Laden raid, but it also betrayed a wider disappointment with Washington’s apparent inability to translate U.S. aid dollars into lasting success elsewhere around the world, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Watching the policy pendulum (and U.S. ambition) swing so wildly over just a few years led me to wonder about prospects for a middle ground somewhere between lofty ambition and paralyzing self-doubt. In May 2012, I traveled to Pakistan with several research goals in mind, among them to identify development projects that seemed to be working and to draw lessons from them for future U.S. efforts.

I profile a few of these projects in my book, starting with Karachi’s Indus Hospital, where I met with doctors and toured the high-quality facility, which delivers free care to its patients. The expansion and replication of this hospital’s success is stymied not by faltering aid, but by lack of human capital: many Pakistani doctors have chosen to practice in safer and wealthier parts of the world. Still, Indus is a testament to what dedicated Pakistanis can achieve even in one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

In Lahore, I met with entrepreneurs whose successful business — selling ladies’ undergarments door-to-door — was enabled by a private Pakistani microfinance loan program. Later, I drank water processed by a for-profit filtration plant that sells to people who cannot afford costlier bottled water. These and other projects reminded me that although rapid population growth and urbanization present huge challenges for Pakistan’s development, they can also spur innovative new enterprises that are relatively cheap to launch.

In villages outside of Islamabad, I saw how years of local organizing by Pakistan’s National Rural Support Programmes (NRSP) have helped communities select, plan, and implement small-scale infrastructure projects, such as constructing streets, schools, and wells. NRSP also trains leaders in grassroots activism, which increases local political capacity and awareness and bolsters democracy.

These success stories give reason to be hopeful about Pakistan’s future, but it is still important to remember that too many other projects have under performed and the country’s development challenges are immense. My argument, therefore, is a narrow one: because the United States has a strong interest in Pakistan’s long-term stability, it should at least aim to support, emulate, or build upon developmental initiatives that are already working. In this pursuit, Washington must adopt realistic expectations and dispense with the facile notion that success in Pakistan is all or nothing.

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