Tag: US AID

Is faith-specific aid the best way to help Iraq’s Christians?

Vice President Pence recently pressured the US agency for international development (USAID) to appoint a special liaison to Iraqi Christians. This may not capture the same headlines as the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination fight or the new NAFTA, but it could have significant—and unexpected—implications for Middle East stability. Pence’s move was part of a year-long fight over US aid policy towards Iraq’s religious minorities, with several conservatives voices claiming USAID and the United Nations were failing to help groups persecuted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In response, Pence has pressured USAID to change its approach. While helping persecuted people is a good thing, I’m worried these policies may actually cause more harm then they prevent.

Last October, Vice President Pence said the United States would redirect aid from the United Nations and directly help Iraqi Christians. He followed this up with an announcement that the United States is dedicating aid to charities trying to help Iraqi Christians. The recent appointment of a liaison to work “directly” with Iraqi churches on reconstruction efforts is the latest development in this process.

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Can Elmo Save Pakistan?

In the latest attempt to project its “soft power” in South Asia, the US government has approved a $20 million project to bring a local adaptation of Sesame Street to Pakistan. Time magazine notes:

“‘The idea is to prepare and inspire a child to go on the path of learning,’ said Faizaan Peerzada, a collaborator on the Pakistani version of the show. “This is a very serious business, the education of the children of Pakistan at a critical time.” Their main messages will be of acceptance and empowerment, to sway youngsters away from religious extremism and promote growth.”

The Guardian writes that “The show will have strong female characters and carry an implicit message of tolerance but will feature no pro-American propaganda or overt challenge to hard line religious sentiment,” (Guardian, 4/7/2011).  Airing on PTV, “Sim Sim Humara” will reach only 3 million children in their homes (approximately 16 million households or 68% of the population own a television in Pakistan), but there are plans to use a radio version of the show and even mobile TV vans to reach remote areas, with an ultimate audience of around 95 million people.

Deploying adorable muppets is likely to be a welcome change of pace from previous American attempts to shape the educational content of Pakistan (and particularly Afghan refugees living in Pakistan).  During the anti-Soviet resistance until 1994, the US spent $51 million creating children’s text books filled with “violent images and militant Islamic images.”  Children were taught to count with “images of tanks, missiles, and landmines,” in the hopes of raising a generation geared to join one of the seven anti-Soviet resistance parties (Washington Post 3/23/2002). The American textbooks were so militant that the Taliban used them to educate another generation of Afghan refugees and returnees (although they took the time to scratch out the faces of all the human characters). After 9/11, the Bush administration spent millions more creating a new version of the same textbooks but without images of weapons and warfare.  Nevertheless, the religious content of the books was retained. According to the Washington Post (3/23/2002) UNICEF attempted to buy up the old militarized version at a cost of $200,000.

Ironically, this is not the first time that the muppets have traveled to Pakistan.  Dubbed versions of Sesame Street in Urdu have been aired on Pakistan television since the seventies. There were also locally produced muppet based programs, such as Uncle Sargam (which apparently morphed into an adult comedy show according to my Pakistani friends). Whether any of these shows had or will have any beneficial political impact on Pakistani children is unknown.

[Oh yes, and today’s blog post was brought to you by the letter “P” as in Progressive Pretext for Poor Propaganda.]

Sailing up stream….

Last week appeared to be Development Week at Foggy Bottom. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her long-promised “Development” speech. The next day, Dr. Rajiv Shah was sworn in as the new administrator for USAID. In his speech, he identified four key priorities for his tenure:

1. To improve lives and fight poverty,
2. To expand human rights and economic opportunities,
3. To build democratic institutions and improve governance
4. To advance U.S. foreign policy to enhance our own prosperity and security.

Both Clinton’s speech and Rajiv’s appointment seem to me to strike the right notes, i.e, that development and diplomacy are as essential as defense in the conduct of American foreign policy.

Of course, as my friends at the National Priorities Project (based here in Northampton, MA) routinely point out, development and diplomacy aren’t even in the same league with the Pentagon.

Take the Afghanistan surge, for example. Jo Comerford, the head of NPP wrote an analysis of it over at TomDispatch.com. She notes that Obama’s decision for 30,000 additional troops will cost roughly $1million per soldier — about $30 billion total (that would be $57,077.60 per minute for us taxpayers). She writes:

For purposes of comparison, $30 billion — remember, just the Pentagon-estimated cost of a 30,000-person troop surge — is equal to 80% of the total U.S. 2010 budget for international affairs, which includes monies for development and humanitarian assistance. On the domestic front, $30 billion could double the funding (at 2010 levels) for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. (My emphasis)

Or think of the surge this way: if the United States decided to send just 29,900 extra soldiers to Afghanistan, 100 short of the present official total, it could double the amount of money — $100 million — it has allocated to assist refugees and returnees from Afghanistan through the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Leaving aside the fact that the United States already accounts for 45% of total global military spending, the $30 billion surge cost alone would place us in the top-ten for global military spending, sandwiched between Italy and Saudi Arabia. Spent instead on “soft security” measures within Afghanistan, $30 billion could easily build, furnish and equip enough schools for the entire nation.

Given the deeply embedded domestic structural factors (political and organizational) that routinely fuel increases in defense spending and ridicule development assistance, it’s hard to find much promise in Clinton’s proclamation that:

It’s time for a new mindset for a new century. Time to retire old debates and replace dogmatic attitudes with clear reasoning and common sense. And time to elevate development as a central pillar of our foreign policy and to rebuild USAID into the world’s premier development agency.

Yeah, well, good luck with that….

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