Saeed Ali Shah's first conversation with a foreigner came in the aftermath of the earthquake that ravaged his valley in 2005. Aid workers replacing ruined houses passed over Mr. Shah's remote village, figuring it would be impossible to carry building materials up the narrow mountain path to his settlement.
But Mr. Shah needed a home, so he travelled 170 kilometres to the charity's headquarters in Islamabad. The devout Muslim didn't know that the aid group, Church World Service, describes itself as "embodying the love of Jesus Christ." All he knew was that a Westerner listened to him carefully, and soon afterward his family received one of the best houses in his village, with a tin roof and a flush toilet.
"Our respect for the foreigners has increased a lot," he said.
The cultural transformation in these craggy reaches of northern Pakistan, driven by foreign assistance in the wake of the earthquake, offers a unique case study for understanding so-called "hearts and minds" efforts in the Muslim world. The international community spends billions to bridge the gap between East and West, trying to suck the oxygen from conflicts in places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the fires of extremism are spreading.
But who knows whether the money changes anybody's mind? The only known academic study of the subject, a widely overlooked World Bank survey of the earthquake zone, suggests that aid delivered on the ground by foreigners can radically change local views of the outside world.
I visited the village of Suwan near the fault line in 2005, 2006 and 2010 and have witnessed firsthand the community, isolated for centuries, opening up to new ideas. The villagers' stories suggest that a massive aid influx - however messy, corrupt and disruptive of old traditions - can hasten the integration of a rural backwater with the rest of society.
It's a hopeful conclusion at a time of skepticism about the aid industry. Some donors are reluctant to help Pakistan rebuild after this summer's devastating floods, worried the aid won't make a dent in extremism. In tribal areas, some flood victims accepted food shipments but ripped away the packaging so they could burn the U.S. flags printed on the wrappers.
Relief workers faced similar problems after the quake five years ago, when they hiked into remote corners of northern Pakistan. One organization sent a team of young staffers who ended their workdays sitting around a campfire together, drinking alcohol, wearing shorts and T-shirts that locals found unsettling. Village elders asked them to leave, and as a consequence, the aid group has banned alcohol from its field operations in Pakistan.
Such friction did not stop the villagers from rethinking their views of Westerners. A survey published as a working paper by the World Bank made what the authors describe as the first-ever attempt to correlate aid with trust. Published in September, "In Aid We Trust: Hearts and Minds and the Pakistan Earthquake of 2005" parses questionnaires from 2,800 households in northern Pakistan and concludes that trust in foreigners declines six percentage points every 10 kilometres from the fault line. In other words, those touched by the disaster had far more positive opinions of the outside world.
The quake gave researchers an unusually pristine laboratory for statistical analysis of the attitude shift, because the fault traced a jagged line through remote, forbidding terrain; those affected were just as likely to be isolated and mistrustful as their unaffected neighbours on the opposite ridge.
"There's a growing pessimism about aid, saying it doesn't work," said Tahir Andrabi, a development economist at Pomona College in California who co-authored the study. "But we're arguing that your dollar can make a difference, can affect mindsets."
The Red Cross and several of the biggest disaster response agencies agreed on a voluntary code of conduct in 1994, forbidding themselves from using aid to "further a particular political or religious standpoint," and such rules are usually obeyed with extreme strictness in Pakistan for the sake of avoiding provocation.
Foreigners often cheer quietly, however, at the cultural byproducts of their work. A female medical staffer helping flood victims in the southern province of Sindh described with amazement how the disaster had forced some local women to leave family compounds for the first time in their lives, breaking ancient custom.
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