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Aid, a weapon?

There are two recent issues from Aid in Pakistan I want to look at:

[Report] A recent new paper by Blair et.al. titled Poverty and Support for Militant Politics: Evidence from Pakistan

[Article] The vaccination scam used by the CIA in Abbottabad



I have pointed to work of Fair, Malhotra and Shapiro earlier here, they have a new report (Abstract in ForeignAffairs) out, which has drawbacks but ultimately points to some results I want to elaborate on. I am still in doubt over the validity of such surveys. I especially disagree with Fair’s advocacy of drones which she bases on her findings from two months with several trips “to Peshawar, Swat and even South Waziristan” (that statement is pretty ridiculous, since from all three places South Waziristan is the only one directly affected by drone strikes). Although their surveys may be done with intelligent approaches and their new survey is contrary to ealier ones also looking at the rural population of Pakistan, it still only encompasses 0.003% of the total population, is hardly backed by narratives which often give a better insight than numbers and is grappling with a couple of stereotipical comprehensions.

The target of their survey was to assess popular support of militant organisations in Pakistan, looking at different societal and economic strata of the population. This is indeed interesting, as a common narrative in the political-Aid sector goes, that militancy stems from poverty, hence lifting people into the economic middle class will diminsh extremist violence.

Drawing on this perception, policies intended to combat militant violence have focused on using aid to reduce abject poverty and move people into the middle class. Underlying this approach are two tacit hypotheses: first, all other things being equal (education, ideology, and the like), poor people are more likely to support and/or participate in violent political organizations (see e.g. USAID 2009); and second, the correlation is sufficiently strong that the changes in income that can be achieved through external aid will have a meaningful impact on support for violent groups.

Stereotypic Assumptions

Before I look at their results, I want to point out basic flaws, which still linger in their work.

In their abstract they write: “Contrary to some popular accounts, Pakistanis do not have a taste for militants.” That makes the preassumption, that a people as a whole can possibly have a taste for militants. Really? Is it taught that way in Political Science Courses today?

They want to assess the support for militant tanzeems among the population, but as they point out themselves:

While the policies we studied may seem high valence to professional students of politics, they do not appear to be so for most Pakistanis […].

Especially the rural poor will often not give a damn what happens outside their brick kiln geo-politically and confronting them with opinions on radical islamist outlets may be of little benefit for assessing general support of these groups. On top of that, if they have an opinion, they may have a totally different conception of these groups’ connections (the authors offer four choices: Kashmiri tanzeem, al-Qa’ida, TTP, sectarian outfits). The understanding of Pakistani militant groups is very poorly developed in Political Science courses in the West and even less understood is how the am log perceives them (before they are even asked to judge them as good or bad).

Finally I would like to understand how it is considered culturally inappropriate to bring computers into the field. I think they deliberately exaggerate their own image they have of a conservative rural Pakistan.

Important Implications

Nevertheless, I think their overall results are valid based on my own experience and point into an important direction for future aid policies:

First, Pakistanis are weakly negative towards a range of militant groups. Second, poor Pakistanis dislike militant groups more than their middle-class counterparts. Third, this effect is strongest for the urban poor, who are most exposed to the negative externalities of terrorist violence. […] These results call into question conventional views about the perceived correlation between socioeconomic status and militant attitudes in Pakistan and other countries.

They further note:

First, the province in which most violent attacks take place, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), is also the one where Pakistanis dislike the militant organizations responsible the most [this points to the findings of Das et.al. in a slightly different Aid-Pakistan context]. […] Taken together, these findings reflect the possibility that dislike of militant groups is driven largely by the extent to which individuals suffer the negative externalities, economic and otherwise, of militant attacks. This perspective suggests the conventional wisdom about the poverty-militancy relationship may be deceptively simple. It is not that the people are vulnerable to militants’ appeals because they are poor and dissatisfied. Rather, it is the poor who suffer most from militants’ violence and so most intensely dislike them.


Ultimately they ask and answer somewhat: Why do poor Pakistanis generally dislike militant groups more than middle-class citizens? Although we cannot directly answer this question, we can offer suggestive evidence. Their explanations then venture into the economic field. What I find more interesting are narrative more or less prevalent in different societal strata. Consider this:

When I returned from Dhulli (AJK) to Lahore last time (roughly a 12h trip), I travelled on a van that was packed with one local middle class student who returned to University in Lahore and who had his sisters with him, one neat sarkari who kicked out another passenger from his already purchased seat and the two drivers – the rest was booked by Tablighis from Central Punjab who returned from a missionary spree. After the local student had nagged me with his talk about girls, pyar and pop music, the Tablighis demanded their first prayer stop. It was Ramzan and the Kashmiris on the bus had no choice to show their piety (just the drivers managed to escape and pretended to look for a suitable toilet place) – they would all have rather preferred to keep moving. I squatted next to the bus when one of the Tablighis offered to hold the lota so I could perform my wuzu. I hesitated but decided to decline. He was slightly irritated but then moved on himself. Later, back on the bus he asked me why I was not praying, and when I explained him me being Christian his neighbours’ eyes leighted up. From here on he, the oldest Tablighi of the group, just old enough to have experienced partition as a small child, was talking about how his best friends back home in Chishtian, just on the Indian border, were Sikh and Christian, he would go to Sehwan with them each year and how he longed to go to the next village on the other side of the border – “after all people there are just like me, Punjabi.” The more the man talked, the grimmer the face of the seemingly liberal Kashmiri student next to me became. “All rubbish, Islam is the only true religion, India the devil.” Now this Kashmiri, who was middle class by all accounts, turned out to be supporting general militant rethoric, while the Tablighi (membership in his organisation is a reason to be kept at Guantanamo longer), who was lower middle class if not just a daily wage masdoori presented the opposite position. Such situations are no singular exception – but they are difficult to explain with Pi = βTi + ηxi + γTi xi + αp + Tiαp + εi.



The Guardian unveiled this bin-Laden-vaccination story recently and aptly quoted: “The whole thing was totally irregular,” said one Pakistani official. “Bilal Town is a well-to-do area. Why would you choose that place to give free vaccines? And what is the official surgeon of Khyber doing working in Abbottabad?” The NewYorker picked up the story and rather felt prompted to note, that local Mullahs could have used it to incite anti-western hatred.

The underlying assumption of the CIA, “all Pakistanis will be happy to receive free vaccinations” is worrying and points of it’s understanding of the country. Their horizon ends behind walled compounds of DHA houses where they assume that poverty is starting and covering the rest of the country. Everyting not Lahore, Karachi or Islamabad is rural. But also the NewYorker’s reaction, linking Pakistan immediately with mad mullahs and the assertion that their anti-polio-vaccine drive would generally work everywhere is bemusing.

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.


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July 2011


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