U.S. Disaster Aid Changes Minds in Pakistan

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.