Tales from the American Aid Experience in Iraq and Pakistan

Commentary | March 08, 2016

EWI President Cameron Munter draws on his experience as head of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Mosul, Iraq in 2006 and as ambassador of the United States to Pakistan in Islamabad in 2011 to reflect on lessons learned about the successful distribution of U.S. assistance. His work is part of a Brookings seminar on Reconstituting Local Orders and the Order From Chaos Project.   

Introduction to the paper: 

For more than a decade, government assistance to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan (the so-called AIP countries) has dominated United States aid efforts. And nowhere have the results of these billions of dollars of expenditure been so hard to measure and the impact of such effort so elusive. As the examples below illustrate, American institutions and mindsets found it extraordinarily difficult to adjust to aid in unsafe places.

For the U.S. government, the unusual experiences of the AIP countries may be an anomaly. If, as many hope, we are no longer involved in major conflicts or conflict areas in these ways, we may be able to go back to a less overheated, less politicized kind of assistance that may be quieter and more effective. But a note of caution: my United States Agency for International Development (USAID) friends who romanticize the old days when they were engineers and social workers out among foreign friends should remember that even the one-size-fits-all assistance of the 20th century was not always a big success. Therefore, it’s time for a very hard look at the way we organize assistance: it’s one thing to measure our commitment to a cause (peace in Sri Lanka or public health in Ghana) by how much we spend, and quite another to figure out how to do it right.

I draw on my experience as the head of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Mosul, Iraq in 2006 and as Ambassador of the U.S. to Pakistan in Islamabad in 2011. What follows is less a systematic assessment than a description of U.S. reconstruction and state-building, from which we may find lessons to consider in the future. Both of these experiences were, in a sense, “start-ups”: later work by PRTs throughout Iraq doubtless learned from our mistakes and misconceptions in 2006, and the final implementation of projects in Pakistan doubtless benefited from our experiences in the early days of Kerry-Lugar-Berman applications. But should we choose again to engage in major assistance projects in war zones, the process is certainly going to be difficult.

To read the entire paper on Brookings, click here