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U.S. Disaster Aid Changes Minds in Pakistan

Aparna Pande

Devastating floods on the Indus and its tributaries have engulfed one-fifth of the Pakistani landmass—an area the size of Italy—affecting over 17 million. The casualties may seem low right now compared to other major recent natural disasters; only 1,600 people are dead and another 2,366 injured. Yet it is the other statistics which are numbing: five million people lack shelter while another 800,000 are still stranded in isolated areas; 3.5 million children are at imminent risk of waterborne disease; 70,000 more are at high risk of death according to the United Nations World Health Organization.

The Pakistani government estimates 1.2 million houses, 10,000 schools, 35 bridges, and 9% of Pakistan’s national highway system have been damaged or destroyed. The long-term impact on Pakistan’s economy can be gauged from the fact that 20% of Pakistan’s farmland is inundated, most of the sugarcane crop has been lost to root damage, and more than a quarter of this year’s cotton crop—which accounts for 60% of Pakistan’s exports—has been destroyed.

In the context of this massive devastation, Pakistan has looked to foreign aid for help in relief and rehabilitation as well as reconstruction. While aid has flowed into Pakistan, it has not come as fast and as consistent as is required by the country.

In this context there have been persistent stories in the local and international media that with the collapse of infrastructure it is the Islamist relief organizations that have moved into areas and will build up a base. Assumptions about the Islamists’ role in relief are not based on facts or reality.

Maybe a look at an earlier natural disaster in Pakistan will help clarify some issues. In October 2005, Pakistan was hit by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake, from which an estimated 74,000 people died, 70,000 were seriously injured, and over 2.8 million were left homeless. A lot of foreign aid flew into Pakistan at that time, and over time things became better. Five years later, one often finds media reports which assert that jihadi organizations and their charities were able to build a base by involving themselves in relief work after the earthquake.

However, a recent statistical analysis by Professor Tahir Andrabi of Pomona College and Jishnu Das of the World Bank shows not only how foreign aid helped win hearts and minds in the earthquake-hit areas of Pakistan, but also that even four years after the incident there was no lessening of goodwill for foreigners in those areas. Further, the study demonstrates that less than 1% of the population in the devastated areas reported any help from Islamist charities or organizations.

This study was carried out in 2009 and entailed a survey of more than 28,000 households in four earthquake-struck districts. The survey showed that those families living “closer to the faultline” reported “more positive attitudes towards foreigners, including Europeans and Americans.” Also, after the Pakistani military, foreign aid organizations were the second-largest providers of aid in the earthquake-struck districts.

This study makes the case that the trust deficit between Pakistan and the U.S. is not a “deep-rooted function of local preferences,” but rather something that can be changed.

Trust in foreigners was strong even four years after the earthquake, despite media reports of drone attacks and supposed growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan. As the authors assert: “The results do not support the notion that low trust arises from deep-rooted population preferences and beliefs.”

In addition to the immediate emergency aid and support that the United States provided Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) has a $200 million, five-year Earthquake Reconstruction Program. The program helped rebuild school complexes and hospital facilities destroyed by the earthquake alongside training teachers and medical staff.

From 2008 onwards, with the start of military offensives in the tribal areas, the U.S. and other countries provided assistance both directly and through international agencies for helping the internally displaced persons. The United States government was amongst the first to respond to the recent floods to hit Pakistan and has already provided over $260 million in aid to Pakistan in addition to pre-cooked meals, pre-fabricated steel bridges, and other infrastructure support.

American strategic goals in Afghanistan are tied in to what happens in Pakistan. For some time now, different Pakistani governments—whether military or civilian—have been reluctant to fully break ties with their former jihadi proxies and side completely with the Americans, citing high anti-Americanism among the public.

If, as the Andrabi-Das study shows, aid can help reduce this trust deficit, then providing prompt and long-term humanitarian and economic aid to Pakistan is in American strategic interest. That the military-intelligence establishment of Pakistan may still be reluctant to change its worldview, even if public opinion is no longer anti-American, cannot be ruled out. One hopes that over time the civilians might have more control over the government and its institutions, and that the flow of U.S. assistance will turn the tide across Pakistan as it did in the earthquake-affected areas.

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