WASHINGTON - A powerful congressional panel has approved nearly $960 million in US aid for Pakistan in the 2015 fiscal year that will target unemployment, illiteracy, and disenfranchisement among the most impoverished individuals and communities.

The Senate Committee on Appropriations did so while clearing the State Department’s 2015 budget of $48.285 billion in which it approved a total of $959.7 million for Pakistan, $65.8 million less than President Barack Obama’s request of $1.03 billion for the South Asian country.

At the same time, the committee acknowledged improved relations between the two countries since last year’s elections and urged sustained commitment to common goals.

“The committee recognizes an improvement in bilateral relations following elections in Pakistan, and encourages continued commitment to shared security and development goals,” the panel said in the fiscal year 2015 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programmes Bill.

The committee recommends up to $ 816 million for assistance programmes in Pakistan and directs that assistance in Pakistan target unemployment, illiteracy, and disenfranchisement among the most impoverished communities. The US financial year starts on October 1 each year.

Of the $ 1.9 billion appropriated amount for Afghanistan - $700 million below the US president’s request of $2.6 billion - the measure provides up to $961.4 million for assistance programmes in that war-torn country amid transition and reduction in American footprint.

While approving allocation for Pakistan, the committee recognizes Malala Yousafzai’s courageous advocacy for girls’ education. The Appropriation Act provides $3,000,000, in addition to funds otherwise available for such purposes, to increase the number of scholarships under the Merit and Needs-Based Scholarship Programme. “Not less than 50 percent of the scholarships should be awarded to Pakistani women,” it says.  The bill increases funding for polio prevention programmes to USD 59 million, including USD 7.5 million in Afghanistan and Pakistan to support a multilateral campaign to eliminate the disease, which is USD 9 million above the President’s request, it said.

The committee has also requested the Secretary of State to consult with the committee on plans for winding down the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP). It supported the reincorporation of SRAP within the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.

The committee asked the State Department to ensure that the US aid money is not used in the Iran-Pak gas pipeline, and urged the Secretary of State to make the release of Warren Weinstein, an aid worker who was kidnapped by extremists in Lahore in 2011, a priority in the bilateral relationship with Pakistan.