USAID: Lost in Translation

Jul 2015

Photo credit: USAID

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Last week, Dawn ran a full page evaluating U.S. aid to Pakistan. Those stories were mine. They were stories about the “Kerry-Lugar-Berman” (KLB) bill, a $7.5 billion aid package from the US to civilian sectors in Pakistan. The point of the bill, which was passed by Congress 6-years ago, was to display America’s commitment to Pakistan’s civilian government and people.

I didn’t expect the articles to headline on the front page or cause the ripple they did. I thought they were quite dull – crunching numbers and reports that have been out there for years.


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Most of the information about the development sector including USAID is hiding in plain sight. It is technically public information, but it’s usually written, spoken and presented in such jargon-heavy speak that for the uninitiated, it can be mind-bogglingly impossible to unwind. And often, it’s underneath the jargon are some very interesting numbers that can tell us a lot about how aid, especially American aid, is being disbursed and used in Pakistan.

So, here’s the background story on how non-newsy, public information becomes front page news.

Alphabet soup

When I emailed an editor at Dawn to offer to write some stories on U.S. aid to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill she didn’t sound interested.

When we finally met a few months later, she seemed completely exasperated.

“I put off meeting you because I wanted to do some research so we could have an educated conversation,” the editor told me, “but I can’t even figure out how much money has come through!”

“Really? It’s definitely there,” I told her, “It’s public information.”

Turns out I was only half right.

As a former USAID officer, there are a lot of things that I think are public information because I used to help develop the talking points. And I remember reams of articles in the Pakistani press.

But when I started researching online, I realized how hard it is for a normal person to figure out what’s going on. Most of the stuff out there is official public relations material or reproductions of press releases. USAID takes pride in branding everything it does including communications, without realizing how much it de-legitimizes the message.

The answers that are out there are not in English. They are in an esoteric language unique to the U.S. government. To find anything, you need to be able to translate your query into U.S. government speak.


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For example, the answer to the editor’s question is on a chart titled, “Direct Overt U.S. Aid Appropriations for and Military Reimbursements to Pakistan, FY2002-FY2016.” I only found this chart because I know the Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of the US Congress, produces such reports. And, I only know that because I worked in Congress.

The chart is a mess of acronyms and numbers.

To decipher which ones of the acronyms are KLB, you need this formula:


Spelled out, it looks like this:

KLB = Economic Support Funds + Child Survival and Health (Child Health and Global Survival since 2010) + International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (include border security) + Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related (mostly anti-terrorism for Pakistan)

The formula comes from a document called the “Quarterly Progress and Oversight Report on the Civilian Assistance Program in Pakistan.” The acronyms are categories of funding.

ESF is general economic assistance and CSH/CHCS is for children’s health like vaccines. INCLE and NADR are confusingly listed under security assistance, but they are for civilian law enforcement agencies (like the police or judiciary). Congress budgets money for Pakistan through these accounts every year to add up (or not) to KLB. The vast majority is ESF.

Alternatively, you can check the USAID Pakistan website. It has a handy link called “Budget Information,” which gives total numbers for how much money came through under KLB. This information only started being posted in 2011 when think tanks in Washington were demanding it because Pakistani government officials kept complaining that barely any money had been received.

Evaluating aid

The other big question was what the money has done. I knew that an American company called Management Systems International (MSI) is based in Pakistan to do evaluations. The reports they produce are supposed to be public, but searching obvious terms on Google won’t bring them up.

When I finally gave up searching combinations of “USAID and MSI and Pakistan and evaluation reports,” I called a friend who used to work at MSI. He told me to check something called the Development Experience Clearinghouse (DEC).

The DEC is a public, searchable database of evaluations and other documents about USAID’s work globally. It’s a great tool. Unfortunately, it buries a lot of great information in its database.

Similarly, the results of aid are shrouded in documents and websites with convoluted “program” names. It’s a mystery why USAID and many other aid agencies like to talk about their work (externally) by referring to programs. The relationship between development aid (like $100 million), development work (like education), and a program name or acronym (like the Pre-Service Teacher Education Program or Pre-STEP) is not obvious to the average person. People think USAID builds schools. What Pre-STEP is or has to do with it just confuses matters.


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For example, when I wanted to learn more about the content of USAID’s teacher training programs, I had to first identify the program name. It’s confusing, since there is a Teacher Education Master’s Scholarship Program run by Training for Pakistan (another program) and then there’s the Teacher Education Project. It’s the latter.

There, you can see that Columbia University’s Teachers College is helping to develop the curriculum. If you add “Columbia” to your Google search, then you get more detailed material about the content of teacher training in Pakistan.

In my Dawn articles, I couldn’t even use the word “pedagogy.” Instead, I referred to “teaching methods.” Newspapers would go out of business if they used the language that the development sector gets away with using publicly.

USAID websites and press releases are full of technical terms like capacity-building, gender mainstreaming, fieldwork, local ownership, sustainability and civil society. But these terms are French for the average Pakistan person or politician, or Punjabi for Americans. The inaccessible language removes the onus on development professionals to actually know what they are talking about in terms of local realities (rather than theory). It also makes it impossible for a lay man – who knows the local context – to hold development workers accountable.

Plain language

The situation is so bad that author William Easterly has published a useful AidSpeak Dictionary that breaks down what these words really mean. The Guardian also has a series on Development Jargon Decoded.

These problems are not unique to USAID. They are a symptom of how far the development sector has gotten from the people it’s meant to serve and be accountable to, including taxpayers in donor countries. An excellent, recent blog post admits, “I’m WEIRD. I’m not sure if I became a development worker because I’m weird, but I was definitely a WEIRD aid worker…. WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.”

Even journalists – who specialize to some extent in understanding policy and people – do not understand what the development sector is doing. That is why it is under-reported, despite keen public interest.

A senior U.S. official told me, “I’ve tried to do background briefings with journalists and explain the difference between appropriations and authorizations, but it just doesn’t click with some. They actually think you’re trying to trick them. But there really is a significant difference between the two actions.”

Ironically, in 2010, President Obama signed “The Plain Writing Act” into Law. This law requires that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” One of the results is a guide “to help writers avoid confusing language and long-windedness.”

“Plain language: It’s the Law” is the website headline.

Unfortunately, bureaucrats just think funny. For example, when I decided to try to access a human being at USAID by contacting their communications office with a series of easy budget and performance questions, I received this quote in response:

“The primary focus of the U.S. civilian-assistance program is to develop a stable, secure and tolerant Pakistan with a vibrant economy. Working with other U.S. agencies, as well as donors and international development partners, USAID has focused its program over the last year on five areas essential to Pakistan’s stability and long-term development and reflective of Pakistani priorities: energy, economic growth, stabilization, education and health.”

What does that tell me about USAID is doing in Pakistan, unique from any other donor? Pretty much absolutely nothing.


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That explains why USAID has been repeating these lines as a way to describe their work since 2011, but people and politicians on both sides are perpetually mystified.

It’s as much of a State Department problem as a USAID one. The over-reliance on strategy as a shortcut for insuring coherency and focus has actually blinded government officials to understanding how their programs and policies are interacting with people on the ground.

In Washington, lobbyists are paid millions of dollars a year to translate Washington for people who can afford to hire them: foreign governments, large companies, and even state governments and universities. For U.S. citizens, there are good ways to pressure government institutions to provide answers and hold them accountable. But in countries on the receiving end of money and policies hatched in distant capitals, there are few routes to understand what’s really going on, let alone say anything about it and be heard.

Dawn asked me to write the articles because Pakistanis need to understand what’s happening with development aid in their own country in order to have an educated conversation about it, rather than the conspiracy theories and tales of blunt corruption that predominate. Hopefully these pieces were just a first, small step in that process.

Nadia Naviwala formerly worked for USAID and for a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She is working on a start-up, The Local Lead.

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13 Responses to USAID: Lost in Translation

  1. Nizam Dawar on Jul 2015 at 2:49 PM

    Dear, it is a well written piece and very informative.
    we know that USAID and many other donors investing huge resources in FATA, but there is no social change , nor education , health and other sectors are improved, i think USAID and other donors shall focus on social transformation, and social development thru Governance and reforms,
    the space for US and west base NGOs are shrinking day by day, and one of our neighbor friend country are bent upon to ban NGOs in Pak to promote their own economic and strategic agenda in the region.

  2. KT Shamim on Aug 2015 at 7:30 PM

    Very informative. Follow the money!

  3. Alina Mughal on Aug 2016 at 4:52 AM

    Awesome write-up. I am a normal visitor of your website and appreciate you taking the time to maintain the nice site. I’ll be a regular visitor for a long time.

  4. live on Aug 2016 at 4:54 AM

    Informative post

  5. Christena ellie on Aug 2016 at 12:19 AM

    Pakistan Zindabad

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