The Agenda

Brief Thought on the Devastation in Pakistan

There is a consensus emerging that the United States must, on strategic grounds, offer generous assistance to Pakistan in the wake of devastating floods that have threatened the lives and livelihoods of millions in that poverty-stricken, and nuclear-armed, country. Many, including Ken Ballen writing for, point to potential gains in support for the U.S. as a powerful incentive for intervention:

After the devastating earthquake hit Pakistan in 2005, the United States stepped in with another intensive relief effort — again widely reported in local media and clearly identified as American aid. Afterward, our surveys found that 79 percent of self-identified Osama Bin Laden supporters (78 percent of all Pakistanis) thought well of the United States because of its humanitarian mission.

Among all Pakistanis, the U.S. government was more popular than al Qaeda, the Taliban, or any Pakistani Islamist radical group — even among Pakistanis who thought favorably of these groups. Indeed, the number of Pakistanis who voiced a favorable opinion of the United States doubled from 23 percent six months before the earthquake to 46 percent one month after American aid began.

What Ballen doesn’t note is that the increase in pro-U.S. sentiments proved fleeting. In August of last year, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that only 16 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable view of the U.S. And in a more recent survey, Pew found that an extraordinary 59 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S. as an enemy, while only 11 percent view the U.S. as a partner.

To be sure, much happened over the intervening years to alienate the Pakistani public, as Matt Yglesias observed last week:

This is presumably linked to the ongoing American policy of secretly-but-not-really bombing targets located in Pakistan, without any kind of declaration of war or proper legal authority. When asked whether these attacks are necessary, 32 percent say yes and 56 percent disagree. Ninety percent of Pakistanis think American bombing “kills too many innocent people.” 

To summarize, it seems that Pakistanis develop favorable views of the U.S. when the U.S. federal government spend hundreds of millions offering direct assistance, but only for a short period of time. When the U.S. military targets terrorists who pledge to kill Americans, positive feelings fade rather quickly. As Ilya Somin has observed, public ignorance is pervasive in the U.S.:

The American electorate does not have adequate knowledge for voters to control public policy. Scholars have long documented the limits of voter knowledge about the institutions and policies of the government. That ignorance is not a moral failing. The rational voter has little incentive to gain more knowledge about politics because his or her vote is unlikely to affect the outcome. Since gaining more knowledge offers few benefits and substantial costs, the average citizen remains ignorant, though rationally so.

In Pakistan, the literacy rate is just under 50 percent and the average voter is without question more powerless than her American counterpart, in part because landlords control the votes of their sharecroppers through a system of feudal terror. Suffice it to say, the cost of gaining access to high-quality information are pretty high in this environment. 

If our goal is to maximize favorable opinion of the U.S. in Pakistan, we could end all drone attacks and other efforts to apprehend anti-U.S. terrorists and pledge billions of dollar in open-ended public assistance, clearly labeled as American in origin. Somehow I doubt U.S. taxpayers would consider this a very sensible step.

An editorial in The New York Times highlights the strategic threat posed by the flooding: 


The devastation in Pakistan is likely to worsen as the monsoon rains continue. But even an end to the rains won’t end the emergency. Plans need to be made right now to ensure that next year’s crops are planted. Looming ahead is the enormous challenge of rebuilding Pakistan’s shattered bridges, roads, structures and agricultural and economic base. For now, the humanitarian needs are paramount.

In some areas, radical Islamic charities have provided shelter and hot meals well before the beleaguered authorities could bring in supplies. This is a battle for hearts and minds. It is one that Pakistan’s government, and the United States, must not lose.

Planting crops, building infrastructure, restoring the agricultural and economic base: though I can certainly see how the U.S. and other affluent countries can be helpful in these domains at the margin, it’s fair to ask whether Pakistan’s government is willing to take the difficult steps it needs to take to provide a basis for long-term growth. Here are a few steps that come to mind: (1) a serious, long-term commitment to women’s literacy; (2) religious freedom for the Ahmadiyyas and various oppressed Muslim sects, Hindus, Christians, and other minorities; (3) aggressive land reform that would break the back of feudalism in rural areas; and (4) a sharp reduction in military expenditures directed at countering the supposed threat from India. 

Until these steps are taken, one can plausibly argue that aid flows to Pakistan will essentially subsidize the country’s corrupt, militaristic elite. Money, after all, is fungible. It is the Pakistani elite that decided to invest in nuclear weapons rather than the rural poor, not the much-despised United States. But the U.S. has helped keep the Pakistani government afloat despite abominably bad human capital policies by transferring billions in military assistance.

Historically, countries in conflict have embraced pro-growth policies out of necessity. When your back is against the wall and you need to defend yourself and generous foreign assistance isn’t forthcoming, the only way to raise enough revenue to pay for weapons is to promote growth that it turns increases tax revenue. But a generous patron can scramble the incentives. Why promote growth to increase tax revenue when you can receive government-to-government transfers — a more accurate term for foreign aid — and skim money off the top? 

This must sound heartless, and I do think that we ought to offer Pakistan humanitarian assistance. But we should do so on humanitarian rather than strategic grounds, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the long-term impact. Chances are that these government-to-government transfers will entrench the power of Pakistan’s elite.

This is one reason why I’d much rather see private organizations work directly with communities, households, and individuals in Pakistan. If Pakistan wants assistance, the public in the rich world should insist that Pakistan open itself to NGOs that treat women and minorities as equals, and that spark entrepreneurial activity designed to loosen the grip of feudal elites. 

My guess is that the rhetoric surrounding the need for aid to Pakistan actually reinforces anti-U.S. sentiments. The implicit assumption is that the U.S. is omnipotent. And so, perversely, Pakistanis who are convinced that the U.S. has the power of life and death over them veer violently between pro-U.S. and anti-U.S. sentiments. Rather than blame Islamabad or feudal tyranny for the country’s poverty, many Pakistanis fixate on the U.S. as the source of their woes. This fixation on the U.S. is a deeply bad thing, and we encourage it. 

P.S. For more perspective on Pakistan, I encourage you to check out Razib Khan’s less apocalyptic take:


I would say that the last 10 years has been mildly on the less encouraging side for Pakistan in relation to its neighbors. Its economic growth has consistently been lower than India’s for years, so the gap in per capita income is growing. Additionally, Pakistan has not gone through a demographic transition yet. Though Bangladesh remains poorer, its fertility is now far lower. The main reason that the population growth numbers are not further apart is that Pakistan has a relatively low adolescent fertility rate, so the generation times are presumably longer. And note the infant mortality numbers, in 1990 Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan were in the same ballpark, but now Pakistan is the standout, and not in a good way.

Of course there are positives too. Pakistan has far more foreign investment than Bangladesh, which is why I log-transformed the scale. And the trend for something like measles immunization is positive, and pushing saturation. Looking at the data the image in the media of Pakistan being a “failed state” seems a bit much, though as Americans our stake in what happens in that nuclear armed nation is great, so even a small probability is of concern (also, I don’t have data past 2008).

There’s far more interesting analysis in Razib’s post.

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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