Why American aid workers in Pakistan need to keep a low profile

By Samuel A. Worthington
Sunday, October 10, 2010

The work that relief and humanitarian organizations carry out in Pakistan is far from easy or safe. We go to difficult areas and are targets for militants seeking to destroy our lifesaving mission through a campaign of killing, kidnapping and intimidation.

Overtly branding our efforts as sponsored by the U.S. government -- as the Obama administration wants us to do -- only makes our jobs harder and more dangerous.

I have the privilege of leading InterAction, an alliance of U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations conducting relief work around the world. Nearly a quarter of our 200 members are responding to the recent floods in Pakistan, and many of them have been in Pakistan for decades.

Though our efforts are supported by public donations, much of the assistance we deliver -- whether food, water, essential health care or education -- comes via funding from the U.S. government. And in recent weeks, the Obama administration has pressured us to make that link as clear and public as possible. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton questioned our courage, suggesting last month that some NGOs are too "afraid to have association with the U.S. government" while distributing aid in Pakistan.

None of the NGO workers in Pakistan -- living under a daily threat of kidnappings or targeted killings -- are cowards. The dangers they face are immense, and their bravery must be commended as they help people whose lives have been devastated by terrorism or the epic floods.

Of course, I understand where the administration is coming from. The U.S.-funded assistance we provide saves lives and helps struggling communities rebuild. In the battle for hearts and minds in Pakistan, U.S. officials argue, the failure to clearly advertise that the American government is behind this help -- with, for instance, logos on medicines or signs on food-distribution centers -- is a missed opportunity. In 2009 the United States approved $7.5 billion in assistance to Pakistan over the next five years; however, as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius noted recently, Pakistanis read more about American drone attacks than about these aid dollars.

In countries such as Liberia or Congo, U.S. NGOs that get funding from the U.S. government routinely promote the fact that they are delivering help "from the American people." But in Pakistan, where aid workers' lives are more often at stake, an enforced branding campaign could undermine our ability to deliver assistance as fast as possible without being a lightning rod for protests or attacks. It would also put the lives of Americans and their Pakistani colleagues at risk. (It is usually Pakistani nationals who do the bulk of the work on the ground.)

In an environment where we are often soft targets for militants, drawing attention to our connection to the U.S. government makes us even more vulnerable.

In March, one of InterAction's most active members in Pakistan, World Vision, which works on issues from health care to farming to literacy, was attacked in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly called the North-West Frontier Province). Seven of its employees were killed. And a year ago, the office of the World Food Program in Islamabad was attacked, and five employees were killed.

There must be a balance among mitigating the risks NGOs face, communicating U.S. goodwill and delivering assistance effectively. NGOs must be allowed to strike that balance on their own every day, even if the upshot is that we don't include U.S. signs on new health clinics.

In some cases, particularly in less-volatile regions of Pakistan, conspicuously identifying aid as American may not pose a threat to our work. But in areas where militants are particularly active, the risks to those delivering the aid may be great. These judgments must be made by the NGOs on the ground, depending on local circumstances, and not directed by the State Department's branding concerns.

In Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghan border, for instance, the U.S. Agency for International Development has granted our members waivers allowing us not to brand U.S. assistance, but there is growing pressure by the government for these waivers to be phased out. While I agree that U.S. aid to the Pakistani people and government needs to be more visible, this could put humanitarian workers' lives in jeopardy.

The American people are enormously generous, as shown after Haiti's devastating earthquake in January and in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami in Asia. In Pakistan, the United States -- through military and civilian assistance, as well as through NGOs -- is playing a major role in response to the recent floods, which forced at least 15 million people from their homes. The humanitarian groups I represent are providing basics, including clean water, medicine and shelter.

The debate over branding our efforts is not simply another technical policy decision. For us, it can be a matter of life and death. NGOs and the Obama administration must work together to find a solution that allows humanitarian workers in the field flexibility to brand or not, according to security conditions on the ground.

We are ready and eager to have that dialogue. The lives of our front-line workers depend on it.

Samuel A. Worthington is president of InterAction, an alliance of U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations carrying out international humanitarian and development work.

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