This Op/Ed was published first on February 3, 2010 by McClatchy Tribune.

The bipartisan Kerry Lugar Bill provides a multi-year, super-sized economic aid program to the people of Pakistan. This is the right approach to improved US-Pakistan relations. The majority of Pakistanis distrust the US because they believe we favor military dictators over civilian democrats and are quick to abandon promised economic aid programs once we have achieved our security goals.

The legislation is a frontal attack on the major obstacle to better US-Pakistan relations – the trust gap – by offering long term aid directed at civilians. Perhaps because the logic of the Kerry Lugar bill seemed so self-evident, Washington was stunned when it immediately ran into a barrage of criticism from several quarters in Pakistan.

The Pakistan army felt slighted by the bill’s focus on the civilian government it regards as a rival for national power. Government elites chaffed at heavy reliance on non-profit organizations to distribute aid. And the people despaired at ever benefiting from aid funds after corrupt government officials and gold-plated NGO administrators take their cut.

The aid funds will soon be dispersed. But unless we rethink the way we organize this massive program, it will be counterproductive to building trust and aiding the Pakistani people.

Retooling the American aid program must address three key weaknesses.

First, Pakistanis have exaggerated expectations for the new aid program. It may seem like a lot of money to a Pakistani peasant earning a dollar a day, but $1.5 billion annually is a tear-drop in the ocean measured against Pakistan’s development needs. Regrettably, many Pakistanis expect the American aid program to address all social sector shortfalls. Bitter public disappointment seems inevitable.

Second, our approach in Pakistan and elsewhere has not essentially changed since the Cold War strategies of transactional aid programs, when we attempted to one-up the Soviets with our largess. We are stuck on the erroneous notion that building schools will gain us pro-American sentiment. Without deeper understanding of social and cultural conditions, aid projects are unlikely to produce a change of people’s attitudes.

Finally, the current “made in America” methodology for designing, implementing and monitoring our aid projects strikes many in Pakistan as too US-centric, not to mention overbearing and biased toward elites.

Perhaps the novel approach President Obama’s Department of Education is pursuing with Race to the Top offers a useful model for dispersing the Kerry Lugar funds. Secretary Duncan is dangling $4.3 billion in stimulus funds to any state, school district, or local community in a competition for innovative ideas to meet program goals. Our substantial aid program offers an opportunity to challenge Pakistanis to design programs that achieve values both the United States and Pakistan hold dear.

No foreign aid program can substitute for a national reform consensus, but it can help under-gird one. Both our peoples value the rule of law, community safety, equitable quality education, and free market systems that provide job opportunities. We should not presume to tell Pakistan how to achieve these goals, but rather encourage those who are committed to them with incentives rather than conditions.

The first step to a reorganized aid program would be to conduct a nation-wide communication campaign to engage the Pakistani public in a discussion of the Kerry Lugar program’s goals, its limitations, and requirements for community consensus and public investment in order to assure success.

A second step is to open the process to new implementation partners by casting a wide net for proposals. We want to open the process to any group with good ideas capable of delivering results, and in the process going beyond the traditional federal ministries and larger NGOs. A board of Pakistani and American experts would evaluate submissions and projects would be selected on the basis of their likely success toward a stated objective.

Importantly, involving the people of Pakistan in the aid program would achieve outcomes that directly fulfill the original intention of the Kerry Lugar Bill. It would identify new leaders by opening up the process beyond the current tight circle of educated and landed elites. By allowing Pakistanis who know their situation and culture better than we do to participate in the process, we would encourage innovative and culturally appropriate solutions. A more open process would assure community buy-in. Finally, it would stand a better chance of achieving the Kerry Lugar Bill’s original intention of engendering greater trust by involving the people in a process that is so important to their well being.

This approach is based on the crazy assumption that building trust begins first by trusting the Pakistani public enough to allow them to design and implement a program in their own interests.

Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.