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How earthquake relief changed a village in Pakistan

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.

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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.

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"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.

Another aid worker talked about the reaction among displaced women when they received a modest sum of money to help them survive after the flood: "It was the first time they had cash in their hands that wasn't controlled by their husbands," she said. "One woman told me, 'I no longer feel I'm just a tool for cooking and cleaning.' " Some humanitarian experts consider this kind of talk highly dangerous, because it could expose aid workers to violent backlash. It could also limit the reach of aid into conservative parts of the country, resulting in more death and misery.

But aid workers who participated in the 2005 earthquake response say the effort had the opposite effect, opening up places where foreigners were not previously welcome.

That's also the consensus of the villagers who live in the Kaghan Valley, at the end of a rocky path among the peaks, in the tiny settlement known as Suwan. Everybody there agrees that locals have a new-found enthusiasm for the outside world. Village children who watched military engineers repair a nearby road are now convinced they want a career with the Pakistan army; those who marvelled at aid workers talking on satellite phones have gone away to work for telecom companies.

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But their enthusiasm is also mixed with nostalgia for old ways of life, and an understanding that exposure to the outside world has also, ironically, threatened the village's long-term survival.

Suwan has been largely isolated since its founding in 1832, relying on its own corn, wheat, milk, walnuts, honey, apricots, and whatever else could be farmed so close to the wind-swept summits. Villagers even wove their own clothing.

Twenty-four of the 700 residents died in the earthquake, and it shattered their carefully cultivated independence. Faced with a hard winter and no shelter, many became refugees in a nearby city. People who had never seen an electrical socket were suddenly exposed to television and music videos.

Only about 300 people remain in Suwan these days. They seem grateful for the Australian aid group that bulldozed a new path to their village, clearing away landslide debris. They are especially thankful for the white helicopters from the Aga Khan Foundation, which took away the injured and brought supplies in the initial days of the emergency. Nobody doubts that outside assistance saved the village.

But when they sit around the campfire in the late evening, parents grumble about how the foreign involvement affected their children.

"Before, young men wanted to stay here and become farmers," said Saeed Shah, 39, cradling his three-year-old son. "Now they go away and work for NGOs."

His brother, Sabir Shah, 46, nodded solemnly.

"They behave more selfishly," he said. "The traditions of independence, self-respect, loving each other, all of this has vanished."

The older brother is among those who moved away, having relocated his family to a nearby city. He returns to Suwan only to visit relatives and help with the family's logging business; forestry has replaced farming as the village's economic backbone. Now he sits near the ruins of his old house, still unrepaired, adding timbers from the shattered building to the fire for warmth.

"The aim of NGOs is to change the Islamic culture of our society," he said.

Pressed for an example, he spoke about the dangers of allowing men and women to work together in city offices, describing such mixing of the sexes as "un-Islamic."

His brother, Saeed, added a reference to the war raging elsewhere in these mountains: "Winning hearts and minds is good, but throwing bombs and chocolates at the same time is not the way."

Saeed's 25-year-old son listened quietly at the edge of the firelight, not wanting to interrupt his elders. In the morning, however, hiking the narrow footpaths, Saqib Ali Shah admitted that he does not share their conservative views about women's role in society. Nor does he want to live in the mountains like his forefathers; after all the trees have been chopped down, he says, the local economy will collapse.

The young man looked out of place in this backwater village, with a stylish sweater and the well-trimmed sideburns worn by fashionable men in the nearby cities. He gazed down the valley: Somewhere in that direction, a freshly paved road led away to a different world.

"My future is down there," he said.

The younger and older generations of Suwan aren't the only ones divided over the cultural upheavals that come with outside help. Many aid workers themselves reject the notion of attaching any agenda to efforts aimed purely at saving lives.

"This is a debate that has been raging in Pakistan," said Mengesha Kebede, the head of UNHCR's office in Islamabad. For his part, the veteran aid worker does not see a problem with donors motivated by a desire to transform rural societies. "It's very obvious certain donors, certain governments have come in a significant way, maybe driven primarily by that," he said. "There's nothing wrong with it."

Others vehemently disagree. "For Pakistan, it seems it is not enough for people to have lost everything in a massive disaster to deserve assistance," wrote Christopher Stokes, operations director for Médecins Sans Frontières, in a recent blog posting. "Instead, foreign aid must be linked with keeping the streets of Europe or the United States safe from potential terrorists."

The argument over how, or whether, to use aid for social transformation will become more urgent in the coming weeks, as the international community struggles with the question of how to rebuild Pakistan after the summer floods.

The 2005 earthquake left more than three million people homeless; by some estimates, twice as many flood victims now remain without proper shelter. It remains unclear who - if anybody - will pay the staggering bill for repairs, estimated at more than $10-billion.

Some say the problem is not only donor fatigue, but something called "Pakistan fatigue," a sense of exasperation with the elite that profited handsomely as the poor suffered in recent years. Many involved in the flood relief have bitter memories of the corruption and mismanagement that happened after the 2005 disaster. The most obvious example stands on the highway leading into the hills near Balakot, a town of about 30,000 residents utterly ruined by the tremors. Pakistan's previous president, General Pervez Musharraf, promised to rebuild the town in a new location, safely away from the fault line. Five years later, the road sign pointing to "New Balakot" still leads nowhere; the $150-million project fizzled, and the townspeople ended up patching together their community on its unstable foundations.

Such errors might discourage another large-scale rebuilding program in Pakistan. More encouraging signs are visible, however, for those who continue north past Balakot, along roads that hug the sides of the Kaghan Valley. Shiny metal roofs glint in the afternoon sun, all of them freshly installed with money from the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority, an agency set up by Pakistan's government with funding from Canada and other donors.

Villagers qualified for the funds only if they rebuilt their homes using new designs that would help them resist earthquakes; up and down the valley, the flat roofs and heavy stone walls that stood here for centuries have disappeared, replaced with timber construction and peaked roofs that look vaguely European.

As night falls, and mullahs sing their call to prayers over mosque loudspeakers, another change becomes visible: electricity now reaches high up the slopes, lighting up settlements that twinkle like new constellations.

Even further up, beyond the network of power lines, dark mountains loom blacker than the night sky. Every nook and crag holds a village like Suwan, perched on the ledges overlooking the bigger towns. Up there, villagers in dark houses can see the electricity grid twinkling below them. In many ways, that is where Pakistan's future is being decided: among the young people who huddle for warmth around their fires, looking at the sparkling civilization far away.

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