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Winning hearts, minds

How earthquake relief changed a village in Pakistan Add to ...

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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