The United States is sending food, money, and helicopters to help Pakistan in the aftermath of Saturday’s devastating earthquake. There is no doubt that such emergency assistance will save lives this week. But the Muslim world, and the world in general, needs to be convinced that the United States responds to such disasters because it shares a view of humanity with the rest of the world, not because disaster is a good opportunity to win hearts and cultivate allies.
U.S. aid to Pakistan has been crucial. So far, the United States has provided 8 helicopters, 3 field hospitals, $50 million and pledges of additional aid and supplies. U.S. military assets, redirected from Afghanistan, have proven critical in reaching remote areas. And more is en route. The US Transportation Command is already scrambling to send not just helicopters and relief supplies, but to do the infrastructure work and logistics necessary so cargo aircraft can land and transfer supplies at primitive airstrips. No doubt the US will also spend tens of millions on longer term earthquake relief in the area.
In addition to saving some lives and helping other victims start to reclaim theirs, the United States is also expecting an additional boost from its earthquake relief effort: a friendlier Pakistan. By helping the government respond to this emergency, US assistance will shore up the current regime and thus reward Pervez Musharraf for his past support in the U.S. Global War on Terror. In Washington, many hope that US earthquake relief will win hearts and minds both in Pakistan and beyond. The U.S. experience in Indonesia suggests that disaster relief does help; poll numbers show that U.S. aid to Indonesia after the tsunami has resulted in more favorable views towards the United States, increased support among Indonesians for the war on terror, and an abrupt decline in support for Osama bin Laden.
This view is shortsighted. U.S. aid to today’s earthquake victims in Pakistan isn’t enough to help them now, nor is it enough to secure their support for the war on terrorism.
Consider the after-affects of the earthquake in Pakistan. When all the survivors have been plucked from the rubble, the most immediate task is providing the money and supplies needed to build shelters against the coming harsh winter. Then will follow food and economic assistance to restore livelihoods and to help rebuild. This is a much longer term project and at some point the attention span of the United States will wear thin. Other priorities and claims on resources will take over. Over time, the earthquake will become a memory.
At that point, what will Pakistanis remember about U.S. aid? They will remember the near-constant support the U.S. has provided to a series of military dictators, despite simultaneous claims about the desire to spread freedom and democracy. Pakistanis will, perhaps, recall that the aid it gets from the United States is almost evenly split between economic and military assistance. Of the roughly $600 million the U.S. has pledged for this year, about half will be spend on the military instead of food, infrastructure, education or the development needs of average Pakistanis. They may remember that the United States has consistently given more aid and support to Pakistan’s military rulers than to its elected governments.
As they struggle to reclaim their lives, today’s earthquake survivors may well remember something that is often forgotten in the United States but which is common knowledge in the rest of the world: of the two dozen richest countries, per capita the U.S. ranks near the bottom in terms of the money it gives to the world’s poor.
For the US to win hearts and minds, it needs to go beyond providing relief when natural disaster strikes. The U.S. needs to understand that the poor face the everyday disasters of poverty, disease, and economic despair. Our own security lies in helping the world understand that America and Americans share their wealth out of a common condition called humanity, not simply because it is one tool for securing our own foreign policy goals.
Sharon Weiner is an Assistant Professor in the School of International Service at American University.