Desperate to win hearts and minds in Pakistan, the U.S. has begun pushing aid organizations working in the country's most dangerous region along the Afghan border to advertise that they receive American assistance.
The new requirement has disturbed aid groups, which fear their workers providing food, water, shelter and other basic needs to Pakistanis will come under militant attack if they proclaim their U.S. connection. This fear exists throughout Pakistan but is especially acute in the tribal region, which is the main sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in the country.
But U.S. officials in Pakistan are under increasing pressure from Washington to increase the visibility of the country's aid effort to counter rampant anti-American sentiment that can feed support for militants targeting the West.
The focus on branding has become even more intense in the wake of the U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town on May 2. The covert operation infuriated Pakistanis and strained the relationship so much that the U.S. decided to suspend $800 million in military aid to Pakistan.
The decision does not affect civilian aid and makes the effort to win hearts and minds through that assistance even more important. The U.S. has earmarked $7.5 billion in civilian aid for Pakistan over five years, but it will do little to sway public opinion if Pakistanis don't know where the money is coming from. And there are growing questions in Congress about what U.S. aid in Pakistan is achieving.
"Our mandate is to make sure people here know that they are receiving American assistance," said one U.S. official in Pakistan. "It's always a struggle, especially in a country like this with security considerations."
Previously, because of the militant threat, groups working in the semiautonomous tribal region were exempted from having to brand their projects, a requirement for groups distributing American aid elsewhere in the country.
The U.S. quietly changed its policy toward the tribal region in the fall, and now evaluates each project on a case by case basis, said U.S. officials in Pakistan. The U.S. has also become less willing to grant waivers to the requirement that it often gave in other parts of the country that have experienced militant violence, such as northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and central Punjab province, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Militants have targeted aid groups in the past. The Pakistani Taliban killed five U.N. staffers in a suicide attack in 2009 at the office of the World Food Program in Islamabad. In 2010, militants attacked World Vision, a U.S.-based Christian aid group helping survivors from the 2005 earthquake in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killing six Pakistani employees.
Eleven prominent charities signed a letter last fall asking the U.S. Agency for International Development not to require aid in Pakistan to be branded with the group's red, white and blue logo. The letter was sent by InterAction, an alliance of U.S.-based NGOs.
Joel Charny, vice president for humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, said it has been frustrating to have U.S. officials sitting in a fortified embassy in Islamabad argue that NGO concerns about safety in Pakistan are overblown.
"There was just a complete contradiction between the U.S.'s own security protocols for their employees and their staff and then the risks they were expecting the NGOs to take on in the name of branding and hearts and minds," said Charny.
The international humanitarian aid group CARE turned down American funding to help people in south Punjab cope with last year's devastating floods because of the U.S. government's branding requirements, the organization said.
Other non-government organizations working in Pakistan that receive American funding declined to comment on the new branding policy, saying the issue was too sensitive and talking about it could put their employees at risk.
Not only does the U.S. require many NGOs to brand their projects with a logo that says "USAID: From the American People," but U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter decided a few months ago to add the American flag as well to make sure illiterate Pakistanis would know the aid came from the U.S., said U.S. officials.
Examples of projects in dangerous areas that were branded in this manner include a dam in the South Waziristan tribal area, a teacher's college in the Khyber tribal area and 150 schools in the Malakand area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said U.S. officials. All three areas experience frequent Taliban attacks.
Another initiative handed out livestock to conflict-affected families in the Swat Valley, which was controlled by the Taliban until an army offensive in 2009 and still experiences periodic violence. The livestock all had USAID tags around their necks, including one that read "This goat is from the people of America."
The U.S. still exempts some projects in very dangerous areas from branding, or asks them to use press releases or TV documentaries instead of logos, but the number of exemptions has declined, said U.S. officials.
USAID first implemented its branding policy in 2004 when delivering assistance to Indonesia after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami and saw favorable perceptions of the U.S. nearly double in the country, according to the agency.
Research on the connection between U.S. aid and hearts and minds in Pakistan has been mixed. A study published last year by Tahir Andrabi, an economics professor at Pomona College in California, found the influx of foreign aid after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake significantly increased survivors' trust in the West.
But a separate study done by Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, noted that the positive effect on public opinion nationwide was very short-lived.
"I don't think it's inappropriate for donors to want to take credit for some of the money they are giving to a country like Pakistan, but I think they should be aware that the impact of that branding could be very limited, and it could end up being self-defeating if it is actually going to put the aid agencies or government agencies at risk," Wilder said.