Extended Interview: Robin Raphel
Appointed to Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke’s team in Pakistan in 2009, Robin Raphel coordinates the U.S. civilian aid program to Pakistan. She is the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs.
Since 2002, the United States has distributed more than $15 billion in foreign aid to Pakistan, drawing criticism from both countries about how it was managed and what it achieved.
Last September, under the Kerry-Lugar bill, Congress passed a new aid package, assigning $7.5 billion in nonmilitary assistance to Pakistan between 2010 and 2014. The measure is expected to go into effect this spring under Raphel’s management in Islamabad.
This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by phone on February 23, 2010.
Bryan Gibel: Let’s start with an update on whether the aid money from the Kerry-Lugar bill has started to kick in yet. Has any money been allocated? If so, what programs has it gone to?
Robin Raphel: First of all, what's referred to as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman money is really money for fiscal years 2010 through 2014, given that the Kerry-Lugar legislation wasn't passed until September 2009. So, we don't have the FY10 money yet, even though it's been appropriated. However, the good news, from our perspective, is that for FY09, we had over $1 billion in assistance money, between the regular budget and the supplemental.
How is that money being spent?
We have a number of programs going on with that money. As part of our pledge in Tokyo, at the donor conference, we agreed to give $174 million to various budget support–type programs. For example, $85 million of that was an income transfer program called the Benazir Income Support Program, which essentially provides monthly stipends to the poor. We think that kind of assistance is good at a time when we're also trying to get the government, in a policy sense, to increase their tax base. … It is an income transfer program with the purpose of providing a safety net while the government does other things.
We've provided $45 million to the Higher Education Commission, which is a government entity that is well vetted and that we know can spend the money appropriately. We've given $44 million to support the internally displaced people in Swat, Malakand, and those areas. We've also given another $21 million to the World Food Program, which has been supplying food in that area. These are some of the short-term income transfer programs that usually start earlier in the whole funding scheme. … We are expecting the FY10 money to kick in, hopefully in the spring.
You mentioned that some of the money is going into funding for educational programming with the Higher Education Commission, which is part of the Pakistani government. In the past, the United States has had problems with the oversight and auditing of funds going directly through the Pakistani government. With that in mind, what is the current approach to distributing aid?
Let me say first, in the case of the Higher Education Commission, they have already been thoroughly vetted. … They do audits as a matter of course with all aid programs, but they are particularly efficient and effective and have a strong reputation for spending their money correctly. That is one of the reasons we selected them as one of the organizations that we could pass money to directly.
On the broader oversight question, we've learned a lot of lessons from our experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where we began to pour a lot of money in very quickly and ran up our programs really quickly; and sometimes oversight was kind of an afterthought. So, we're working hard here to make sure, as we ramp up -- and of course, it's not the same scale as in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s still a quick ramp-up -- to mitigate the risks that we've faced in these other contexts.
Can you give an example of how you are mitigating these risks?
Any entity that we would pass money to directly has to undergo a pre-award survey by auditors, looking at how they keep track of their money, looking at their procurement practices, and so on. We are doing this, for example, with the electricity projects. These are government entities that will be doing the procurement [of electricity], so we have auditors checking the practices [of these entities] for any deficiencies, to be sure that our funds are correctly spent.
But this whole idea of working through Pakistani institutions and the Pakistani government is to make sure that the Pakistanis own whatever program or project we're funding, so that there is a better chance of it’s being sustained. …
Everybody is realizing that, if you do something parallel to local institutions, when you leave, it doesn't last; and we're trying to get away from that. But we are also conscious of the oversight. That is why we have these pre-award surveys and practices for mitigating the financial risks that we might see. We've also done something that we didn't do in the first instance in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that is setting up a nine-person Inspector Generals Office right here in Pakistan, just for Pakistan [by the Department of State].
So, we're trying to get ahead of the curve on the problem of corruption and have a better chance. No program of this size and scale is going to be problem free on the financial side. We know that. But we are making a very conscious and deliberate effort to mitigate problems.
There have been reports of ghost schools -- schools that only exist on paper but still get funding from the Pakistani government. How are you working to safeguard against these issues with the new aid package? And how much of the $1.5 billion a year will be going to education?
It won't be spent in precisely the same chunks every year, but if you average it out, it comes to about $150 million a year for education, and that will be split between higher education and basic education. What we're working on is to be more mindful of the fact that education here is really a provincial subject.
As part of our decentralization [efforts], we are staffing USAID [United States Agency for International Development] offices in Lahore and Karachi to work more closely with the provincial governments on those issues that are provincial concerns. Health and education are both managed and implemented by the provinces. The federal government sets the policy.
We are going to be working closely with the [provincial] governments to identify what the major gaps in their capital expenditure budgets are.
What are some of these gaps?
In Baluchistan, for example, what the government really wants most of all there is not assistance to build new schools, but to upgrade primary schools to middle schools. It turns out that all the donors and governments have focused so much on primary schools that there are disproportionately few middle schools to take up the primary school students. We will be working with them on a reimbursable basis to help get that upgrade done. We will have firms -- largely Pakistani but supervised by Americans -- that will check that the schools identified to be [upgraded] with our funding actually do get upgraded.
Public education here, like public education everywhere, to one degree or another, has a lot of problems. Here, you’ve had a provincially managed system in which teachers can be sent anywhere within the province, and it's pretty clear that there are problems with that system. What happens is that teachers get an education, and they'd rather be working in the capital city than in the villages. So, there's a lot of work being done figuring out how to recruit teachers from their own areas. The idea is -- and there's research to suggest this is true -- that if you recruit a teacher and give him or her a job in their own community, then they are more likely to stay.
What other work is being done, at the international level?
There is a new education commission here that the British are helping to set up. They have an education expert who has done a lot of education reform -- not only in the United Kingdom but also in various state systems in the United States. We are putting a prominent educationalist on that commission so [that we are working] not just at the grassroots level, helping the provinces, but also on the other end, on the policy side.
It sounds like the major approach is to decentralize the distribution of aid while also maintaining oversight and accountability through USAID and the embassy in Islamabad. Can you comment further on how this decentralized approach will provide effective transparency and oversight of how U.S. money is being used?
Let me just say one more thing about the decentralization. Part of what we want to do with the decentralization is to focus our assistance on some of the most vulnerable areas in the country. A lot of the money that we already have moving has gone to Malakand Division and south Waziristan, another one of the areas that borders Afghanistan, where there has been a lot of conflict.
We're trying to balance things by having some national programs -- the energy program, for example -- that will put energy onto a national grid. But we're also trying to focus assistance on areas that have been in conflict, and on specific districts within provinces, such as Sindh and Punjab, where we know that some of the extremist groups recruit. We are trying to tailor our assistance. It's an ambitious idea and very challenging. And, of course, working in various parts of the northwest frontier isn't easy, because security is a challenge. But we're trying to approach this in a positive and transparent manner, and I think we're making progress.