Winning Hearts and Minds in Pakistan, One Humanitarian Relief Worker at a Time

EDITOR’S NOTE: A study exploring the effect of U.S. post-quake aid to Pakistan in 2005 has shown that such assistance can greatly improve U.S. image in the Asian nation, but only for a short time, notes Molly Kinder. The senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development says the best way for the U.S. to win hearts and minds in Pakistan is to pursue genuine and meaningful change in the welfare of Pakistanis, with specific objectives that it must actually achieve.

Five years ago this week, I arrived in Islamabad with a team of donors. A deadly 7.6 magnitude earthquake had just struck Pakistan, claiming more than 70,000 lives and leaving nearly 2.5 million people homeless. The international response that I witnessed was swift, and impressive. Islamabad’s hotels were quickly filled to capacity, as a veritable “Benetton ad” of relief workers, helicopter pilots, aid officials and journalists from across the globe traveled to the earthquake-affected areas. The United States in particular stepped up in a big way, committing more to the quake relief than any other bilateral donor and earning a temporary boost in popularity as a result. Today, Pakistan is reeling from yet another natural disaster: flooding so catastrophic that the UN has dubbed it the single worst natural disaster in the institution’s history. Once again, the United States has led the international relief efforts. Touting the mantra “the first with the most,” U.S. officials have pointed out that the United States has given more to the flood relief efforts than any other single donor country.

Can the post-floods generosity help the U.S. improve its image in Pakistan once again, for any sustained amount of time? Based on the findings of their timely new study, Jishnu Das (World Bank) and Tahir Andrabi (Pomona College) contend that it can. They conclude that such assistance could make an “overwhelming” difference in swaying public opinion in Pakistan. I am less optimistic, for two reasons. First, conditions in Pakistan today are much less hospitable to the public opinion boost that the authors found after the 2005 earthquake. And second, because the authors asked Pakistanis if they trust foreign people, the study’s policy implications are limited by the reality that trust in foreign people does not necessarily equate to trust in U.S. policy.

The Obama administration’s aspirations of winning the “hearts and minds” of the Pakistani public is well documented. Today, no other country in the world has a worse opinion of the United States than Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment is fuelled by conspiracy theories and widespread opposition to U.S. drone strikes and American troop presence in Afghanistan. The United States’ dismally low approval rating (recently measured at just 16 percent) limits the political space for Pakistani leaders to implement what is perceived as an American agenda of rooting out Al Qaeda and other extremist groups.

The one exception to this staunchly anti-American narrative in Pakistan is that 6-month period following the October 8, 2005 earthquake in Pakistan’s Kashmir region. Within 48 hours, the first of 24 U.S. Chinook helicopters arrived to deliver food and relief supplies to the mountainous terrain and to transport the injured to medical facilities. As relief arrived, U.S. popularity soared. One poll showed a doubling of U.S. popularity, from 23 percent approval in May 2005 to a striking 46 percent in November 2006, one month after the earthquake. Newspapers heralded the impact of what they termed “Chinook diplomacy” as one of the “most significant hearts and minds successes so far in the Muslim world.” In fact, the very premise of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation which authorized a tripling of economic assistance to Pakistan was to recreate this same post-earthquake popularity boost, “ without waiting for a natural (or man-made) disaster.”

Alas, this popularity proved fleeting. U.S. approval ratings across Pakistan plummeted in a short time – from a high of 46 percent in November, just after the earthquake, to 26 percent six months later. The lesson that the international community drew from the 2005 earthquake seemed to be that humanitarian aid can improve U.S. public opinion across Pakistan for a brief time, but those improvements will not be sustained.

Das and Andrabi’s study, entitled “In Aid We Trust: Hearts and Minds and the Pakistan Earthquake of 2005,” asks a different question: what about the public opinion of those directly affected by the 2005 earthquake and the subsequent relief efforts? Did the humanitarian response of the U.S. and other donors make a sustained difference in their opinion, long after the fact? To answer this question, the researchers went back to the earthquake-affected area in the spring of 2009, four years after the quake struck. They surveyed 126 randomly selected villages in the region, asking detailed questions about trust and the kindness of strangers and of western foreigners. Their questions included: ‘If you dropped a rupee note equivalent to $12, would (__ group) return it to you?’ ‘How helpful and kind was (__ group) after the earthquake?’ The authors concluded that trust in foreigners went up dramatically as they moved closer to the fault line, where the concentration of foreign relief workers was greatest. At the fault line, 70 percent expressed trust in foreigners four years after the quake; 40 kilometers away, just 30 percent did. The authors attribute this sustained, long-lasting increase in foreign trust to the “boots on the ground” presence of relief workers.

Writing on Foreignpolicy.com, Das elaborates on what the study’s findings mean for the U.S. assistance program in Pakistan:

The results suggest Pakistan’s “trust deficit” is less caused by deep-rooted beliefs and preferences, nonlocal events such as drone attacks on the Afghan border, or U.S. policy toward Israel. It’s human interactions that change attitudes, and their effects are long term.

While these findings are powerful, the weakness in the authors’ conclusion is that trusting Western people is not the same as trusting U.S. policy and motives. A villager closest to the earthquake fault line may trust an American or Western relief worker who comes to his or her village, for instance, but may still vehemently object to U.S. drone strikes and oppose military action in the FATA region. Yet the survey questions did not ask whether the villagers trusted American policy – an omission that significantly limits the policy implications of the study. Das and Andrabi’s primary policy implication is that exposure to people matter more for attitudes toward people than does broader policy. But since it is attitudes towards policy that matter most to U.S. interests, perhaps the more pertinent question is: does the trust of a western person make any difference in a person’s trust of U.S. policy? Without clarity on this question, the study’s findings should be interpreted with some degree of caution.

Still, the study’s finding that “humanitarian assistance can change the Pakistani population’s attitude toward foreigners” is encouraging, if not the exact objective of U.S. policy. Yet even along this metric of trust in foreigners (and not trust in policy), there are at least three reasons why I am skeptical that U.S. humanitarian relief today will have the same public opinion effect as it did five years ago. First, the authors’ key finding is that direct interaction with aid workers is the key to changed attitudes. Their findings suggested that even moving out ten kilometers from the fault line diminished the impact on trust of foreigners – in their study, by 6 percentage points. Today, with more than twenty percent of Pakistan under water, the geographic scope of the disaster is simply too great for relief workers to have substantial interactions with the vast majority of those affected. Second, as the authors note and as Andrew Wilder documented in his definitive 2005 study, the humanitarian response to the earthquake was widely regarded as “one of the largest and most effective responses to a natural disaster to date.” It is hard to imagine that the authors would have found this same sustained positive impression of foreigners had the earthquake relief efforts not been so effective. Today, given the “clumsy response” of the Pakistan government to the floods and the enormity of the relief challenge, it is not clear that the humanitarian response to the floods will be perceived by Pakistanis as positively as the 2005 earthquake response.

Third, and perhaps most important, in 2005 the widespread perception among Pakistanis was that the earthquake relief efforts were genuine and not motivated by “hidden agendas.” Today, Pakistanis are far more mistrustful of U.S. motives for giving aid. Consider, for instance, these quite typical newspaper headlines in Pakistan: “U.S. pilots fly Pakistan flood aid to win hearts and minds,” reported the Dawn newspaper on August 10th. “$224 million pledged to win ‘hearts, minds” said the Nation’s headline on August 24th. Rarely is U.S. aid mentioned in a newspaper article without the term “hearts and minds” right alongside it. On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with the study’s authors: the more the United States seeks out a public relations boost from its aid, the less likely it is that this will materialize In this context, the “first with the most” posturing of U.S. officials may in fact be counterproductive: the more the United States tries to take credit for their aid and aims to improve its image, the less genuine their motivation will be perceived. (A Pakistani journalist recently captured this sentiment rather bluntly. After I reported on the large relief pledge of the United States, he said to me: “Yes, but isn’t it all just too contrived?”)

Das concludes his essay on Foreign Policy’s website with the following insight:

Perhaps, then, the truth about the West’s relationship to the Pakistani people is at root paradoxical: Namely, that it’s easiest for Westerners to win hearts and minds only when that’s not what they’re explicitly setting out to do.

To that I would add a second conclusion. The only way for the United States to win hearts and minds is to explicitly set out to make real, meaningful change in the welfare of Pakistani people, with clear objectives for results – and then to actually achieve it.

If only that were easy.

Re-published with permission by the Center for Global Development. Visit the original article.

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