ISLAMABAD – ISLAMABAD (AP) — Concerned that U.S. help to Pakistan is not getting enough recognition, Washington is making a new push to get international aid groups it funds to advertise the fact. But it is meeting resistance from partners worried U.S. branding could prompt Taliban attacks.
The conflict highlights a major challenge for the U.S. as it tries to win hearts and minds in Pakistan, a key ally in the war in neighboring Afghanistan and a deep well of anti-American sentiment. The U.S. has earmarked $7.5 billion in aid over the next five years, but it will do little to sway public opinion if Pakistanis don't know where the money is coming from.
The issue has taken on new urgency in recent weeks as the U.S. has donated nearly $350 million to help Pakistan cope with this summer's devastating floods.
U.S. officials have said they are only focused on saving lives, but the country's special envoy to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, repeatedly expressed concern last week that the U.S. wasn't getting enough credit for its assistance.
"So much American aid goes through NGOs and the international community ... that people may be less aware of the American aid than they ought to be," said Holbrooke after visiting a relief camp for flood victims in southern Sindh province.
Many groups that turn U.S. dollars into the food, water and shelter Pakistanis desperately need are reluctant to use American logos on items they distribute because they fear they may be targeted by Islamist militant groups.
The Pakistani Taliban killed five U.N. staffers in a suicide attack last October at the office of the World Food Program in Islamabad. In March, militants attacked World Vision, a U.S.-based Christian aid group helping survivors from the 2005 earthquake in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, killing six Pakistani employees.
World Vision said it is worried about using American logos anywhere in the country after the attack, even in less risky Punjab province in central Pakistan, where it is currently distributing thousands of U.S.-funded hygiene, shelter and cooking sets to flood victims.
"We're not as concerned with the threat in Punjab, but even there we are not sure," said Ahmed Khan, the group's procurement officer. "If we go with U.S. branding, the Taliban who attacked us might have a good network and think that World Vision started in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but are now in Punjab, and come attack us."
Robert Wilson, the Pakistan director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, said Washington is sensitive to security concerns but also must weigh the benefit that comes from average Pakistanis knowing that America is helping them.
Holbrooke and other senior officials have raised concerns that groups receiving U.S. funding in Pakistan are not branding their assistance with the USAID logo as required. Groups are exempt from this requirement when operating in Pakistan's militant-infested tribal region along the Afghan border but must get a specific waiver to forgo U.S. branding elsewhere in the country.
"A lot of them may have assumed they don't have to do it because it's Pakistan, and that's not correct," said Wilson. "We want to publicize our partnership."
USAID first implemented its branding policy in 2004 when delivering assistance to Indonesia after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami and saw favorable perceptions of the U.S. nearly double in the country, according to the agency.
Following Holbrooke's recent visit, USAID sent a notice to its partners in Pakistan reminding them of the branding policy, said the agency.
It also appears to be taking a harder line on granting waivers outside the tribal areas.
Earlier this week, USAID rejected a waiver request from a large international aid group for a $5 million program to provide food, water and sanitation assistance in Sindh, said the group's representative. It also reminded the group that a waiver for its operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa expires in 120 days even though the program runs for another 300 days.
The representative acknowledged that the risk of attack in Sindh was much lower than Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but said the group is still reluctant to associate itself with the U.S. there because it could affect its image elsewhere in the country. It plans to appeal the waiver rejection and try to convince the U.S. to rely on media outreach rather than use of the USAID logo to advertise American assistance.
"We recognize the need for USAID to do some branding in terms of promoting awareness in Pakistan of the positive impact that its programs are having, but we also need to make sure we do so in a way that doesn't put our staff and beneficiaries at risk," she said.
She requested that neither she nor her organization be named because of concerns that militants would discover that it is backed by the U.S. Several other aid groups declined to comment at all.
The U.S. depends on independent groups to advertise its assistance because unlike other countries, it does not carry out many relief or development activities directly on the ground, said Holbrooke during his recent visit.
The U.S. began to rely more on outside groups after USAID's work force was cut by nearly 40 percent in the 1990s as part of downsizing following the end of the Cold War.
The limits on U.S. operations, which are also driven by security concerns, can often make it seem like other countries are doing much more for Pakistan even though America is the nation's biggest donor, said Holbrooke.
"Some of the smaller efforts are much more visible," said Holbrooke, while visiting an area filled with camps run by the Saudis, the Chinese, the Iranians and Jamaat-e-Islami - an Islamic political party known for its anti-American views. "They give less aid with higher visibility in the local areas."