Interview with Alex Thier, December 2010/January 2011
They are neighbors, divided by some of the world's most majestic mountains and a complicated history of shared borders and ethnicities. At USAID, Afghanistan and Pakistan share an office, and occupy all of one man's time. Alex Thier, assistant to the administrator and director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, joined the Agency in 2010 with a background spanning field postings with the United Nations and NGOs, and the Washington policy community. His work has focused on the two countries for many of the last 18 years. In fiscal year 2010, he oversaw a staff of nearly 500 Americans, a significant number of foreign nationals, and a $5 billion budget. Many U.S. foreign policy goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan share familiar undercurrents: building sustainable institutions, supporting and empowering civilian governments to provide for their people, and laying the groundwork for long-term stability and human progress.
Thier recently sat down with FrontLines Managing Editor Kelly Ramundo to talk about USAID's efforts in the two countries. Excerpts follow from their discussion.
Theories of Change
Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively, are our two largest assistance missions in the world, by an order of magnitude. This year we have nearly $4 billion for Afghanistan, $1.5 billion for Pakistan. These are investments that we are making in these countries that are really, at the moment, unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
And so the first question you have to ask is, why are we making that investment? Part of the response is that these are national security priorities. But just because something is a national security priority doesn't mean that you invest civilian assistance dollars unless you think you can actually achieve some sort of bigger impact or effect by investing that money.
I think that we have two somewhat slightly different theories of change for Afghanistan and Pakistan that we hope to be able to accomplish by investing these resources.
In Pakistan, you have a country that, over history, has swung between corrupt civilian rule and corrupt military dictatorship. As a result, it has failed consistently, for political reasons and others, to meet its economic and development potential.
If you compare Pakistan, for instance, with India—created on the same day from the same material—and you look at their development stories, they're dramatically different. It's not just political, but the politics is very important. In this new era of democracy in Pakistan, we are trying to partner with the government and society to create a much more solid frame for Pakistan's economic and political development.
The ways that we do that are really twofold. We are gravely concerned about Pakistan because of the threat of extremism that threatens to tear the entire state down, to turn Pakistan into a failed state. That's very dangerous for homeland security reasons, for regional security reasons, for the fact that there are 170 million people in Pakistan—it's a huge state—and failure would have catastrophic consequences.
So part of what we do is we focus on stabilization. In the areas where extremism is taking hold, we're trying to focus on root-cause issues: focusing on poverty, focusing on political alienation, focusing on the absence of a credible, legitimate government presence. This aspect of our programming is dedicated to try and work with the Pakistani government to improve that situation in those areas; to diminish the existential threat that Pakistan faces.
The broader portion of our assistance is trying to boost economic and political stability in Pakistan as a whole. We do that by investing in things that will both support the Pakistani people and also support economic growth, like agriculture and irrigation and energy.
For complete interview, click here
USAID chief to Congress: Don't play games with national security - Foreign Policy