Commentary: U.S. foreign aid can win hearts and minds

A rural school in Afghanistan that is far from the electric grid is equipped with solar panels from a U.S. foreign assistance program. The solar powers runs lights, computers and lab equipment in the school.
A rural school in Afghanistan that is far from the electric grid is equipped with solar panels from a U.S. foreign assistance program. The solar powers runs lights, computers and lab equipment in the school. Ben Barber

Can U.S. foreign aid – food, education, roads, health care and training – win hearts and minds? Above all – can such aid win over the youth of the Muslim world who are being recruited each day by extremists wanting to launch a global jihad?

This is the question many ask when they see massive U.S. aid sent to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries where America’s popularity may be below that of Osama Bin Laden.

The answer – based on decades of U.S. assistance – is that aid has in some countries at some times changed hearts and minds. But it is mainly effective in places where there is no ongoing conflict or U.S. occupation. Some lessons learned follow.

U.S. higher education grants plant deep and lasting roots of affection. In Sana’a, Yemen, recently I was approached by a man in the old city who asked where I came from. I was reluctant to answer at first since there were thousands of Yemenis all around – every man with a dagger in his waistband --and not one single soldier or policeman. So I finally took a deep breath and said “American.”

“Wonderful,” said the man. “U.S. aid sent me to university in Beirut in 1960 for a degree in management, and I worked my whole career in the government here afterwards. Thank you. Thank you.” The US used to offer higher education to 20,000 people a year. Now we give less than one tenth of that.

The Marshall Plan won hearts and minds – it rebuilt Europe after World War II and paved the way for economic and political cooperation that led to the European Union. The $13 billion aid program halted the slide towards communism in Greece and the rest of Europe. The United States supplied bulldozers and materials but the European countries supplied the skills and organization.

A whopping five percent of the funds went to public affairs in the recipient countries to be sure people understood where the reconstruction funding came from and the need to work together to avoid future wars. The Marshall Plan staff hired top local directors, writers and actors to create films that spoke to the ordinary public, setting the past behind and looking forward to a new era of cooperation, jobs and achievements.

After the 2004 Great Tsunami off Indonesia, U.S. military and civilian aid changed many hearts and minds. The main newspaper in Aceh where 200,000 people perished ran a front page photo of the U.S. carrier Abraham Lincoln under a headline saying “Thank You.” The ship’s helicopters saved many people, supplied water and food to isolated towns and brought the injured to hospitals. Before the Tsunami aid arrived, Osama bin Laden was more popular than America. Afterwards, that was reversed. Polls show that the bounce in opinion remained although it was eroded by relentless anti-American propaganda disseminated by extremist schools, Islamist political groups and funders of terrorism in the Gulf.

And a year later, after a massive earthquake killed 75,000 in northern Pakistan, U.S. Chinook helicopters were called Angels of Mercy, hauling tons of flour over mountains and destroyed roads. A recent study showed that Pakistanis closest to the fault line who received the most aid and contact with aid workers were most likely to have their hearts and minds changed by the events.

But in countries with insecure leaders and strong anti-American currents, the United States often removes branding labels and simply provides food and other aid in unmarked bags or with only credit given to the local government. As a result, the impact on hearts and minds is diminished.

In Egypt, for example, despite more than $25 billion in U.S. aid since the Camp David agreements in 1979, most Egyptians are unaware of any significant U.S. aid. When informed of the size of the aid, they said it was probably stolen by the Egyptian government; or else the aid was given to buy Egypt’s compliance with U.S. geopolitical goals such as peace with Israel. Others said U.S. aid made them feel shame.

So the dilemma is to publicize the U.S. assistance without making the local recipients feel they are being humbled or used.

Finally, in Afghanistan, where the battle for hearts and minds is at its peak, Taliban fighters have destroyed U.S. aid projects such as schools, and they have killed Afghans who cooperate with aid programs. So aid may be popular but people are too intimidated to speak out or send kids to schools.

Back in 2004 I asked an Afghan farmer near Jalalabad what he thought about U.S. aid in the form of seed and fertilizer given in his town. He did not say “thank you, thank you.” Instead his response was subtle and informative. “We destroyed our own country to defeat the communists,” he said. “Now you the Americans are the only superpower. It’s only natural that you will help us.”

This was a powerful insight into how Afghans saw aid and how we should communicate our largesse. It spoke of a need for mutual respect and a need to downplay the gross power of the U.S. economy in the poor but proud Afghan nation. It was a lesson too often ignored.

The former U.S. aid chief Andrew Natsios told me recently that the best way for aid to win hearts and minds – and undercut Islamic extremism – is to support radio stations, independent news, information and democracy. Fighting poverty alone won’t protect us from the 9/11 terrorists who came from well off and well educated families.

The battle for minds must be won with knowledge, logic and mutual respect for other cultures. The battle for hearts must be won with friendship and demonstrations that people from all religions and levels of development share the desire for partnership and progress on our shrinking planet.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

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