A village saved, a village lost

by UmairJ on 2/23/2011 · 22 comments

Greame Smith from the Globe and Mail, who traveled to the village of Suwan narrates the story of the mountainous region post the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. If one recalls, these were devastating earthquakes that left many people dead, while displaced many more. Greame narrates a story told to him by a resident of the village named Saber Shah, who discusses both the disadvantages and advantages of foreign aid.

This story is absolutely brilliant – we are given the first hand opinion of an individual directly influenced by the aid. There has been research done on the impact of US aid, but what Saber has to say is very telling, not just because he uses religion to justify some of his displeasure, he is more concerned with culture and the impact foreign influence will have on it.

Saber Shah explains that foreign aid assisted in the rebuilding of the remote village, while mentioning that newer technology allowed for more efficient methods of communication.  It did though have a negative effect – it took away the spirit of a simple life style. One prominent example is that Saber has a distinct method of whistling he uses to communicate with others far away from his location, a method that he clearly holds dear, since it must have been taught to him by his father, and in turn passed down by his ancestors. This method is lost to the younger generations since they have cell phones to communicate with.  Essentially a piece of his culture is lost because of the assistance of foreign aid.

Therefore, it is necessary to stress that while the United States’ goal in Pakistan and in Afghanistan may be noble, the people themselves are threatened, as their identity will gradually be changed forever. There will always that group who will persistently fight against this influence, even if the influence itself is an honest attempt of assistance. This is something the West in general and the United States in particular must remember, especially if they wish to assist those in Pakistan. Most people will fight to keep their identity, therefore concepts such as democracy and human rights should not be flaunted around as specifically American and Western values. Do not get me wrong, they are key aspects within Europe and America’s concepts of life, and of course Pakistani’s want their voice to be heard, especially as they do not want to be beaten by the police. However some individuals, in the attempt of keeping what little is left of their ‘culture,’ may push away those ideals that ideally should be implemented within the country.

Saber himself admitted that respect for foreigners had increased dramatically, and that aid had truly assisted his village and his family. However, Saber’s brother says something very profound that really helps explain the mindset of most Pakistani’s:

‘we know the foreigners do not only want to help us, they want to change our culture, and this countries future may depend on whether they succeed’

Greame\’s video

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Petulant Skeptic February 23, 2011 at 4:09 am

Wringing one’s hands over “the old ways” being eclipsed by more modern ones is a quaint way to sentimentally tug at the reader’s heart strings. However, it’s incredibly myopic and manipulative to boot.

The elder’s ability to whistle is picturesque and serves to neatly encapsulates an appeal to an older, simpler time; while simultaneously ignoring that realities of those “older, simpler” times. For instance, “back then” nearly every disease was treated with blood letting or maybe a poultice. While infant mortality in Pakistan may still be an abysmal 70.5/1,000 but that ignores that it’s half of what it was in 1965.

I have no doubt that a villager in rural Pakistan may believe foreigners wish to change his culture. That view is far more informed by his particular zeitgeist than it is the installation of newer technologies, even if donated by those powers. That these villagers were aided by foreigners and believe that foreigners want to change their culture does not equate to a belief that the aid is an instrument of change. It’s certainly a view that is held by some, but it’s a paralogism to say that their belief in foreign cultural imperialism has anything to do with aid.

Smith’s piece repeatedly conflates the intention of many aid organizations with those stated by developmental economists and politicians. In fact he mentions that the Red Cross and the other largest organizations signed a voluntary pledge not to pursue any “particular political or religious standpoint.” He then cryptically, and repeatedly, references organizations who wish to see these types of changes and ostensibly use their aid to do so; all while never saying who they are.

At one point Smith even tells us, “villagers qualified for the funds only if they rebuilt their homes using new designs that would help them resist earthquakes.” He follows this up by explaining the aesthetic difference between such structures and the older, simpler pre-earthquake ones. It somehow goes completely unmentioned that these “flat roofs and heavy stone walls” were one of the reasons casualties were so great during the earthquake.

In fact, he seems to be saying that by insisting that a practice that directly led to deaths, injuries, and the scale of rebuilding required be maintained because it is how it has been done for centuries.

It’s one thing to lament the loss of culture, but it’s quite another to oppose alleviating human suffering in the name of tradition.

sayke February 23, 2011 at 11:58 am

petulant skeptic – well put. this reminds me of the debates between the defenders of local sovereignty and the defenders of human rights… “but treating hazara people terribly is just part of pashtun culture!!” waaaa too bad. go cry. i say, if there’s any question, err on the side of choosing to screw the tin-pot schmuck and stick up for the poor bastards who have had to live under his rule.

same thing.

Homira Nassery February 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm


anan February 26, 2011 at 2:58 am

Homira Nassery, Sayke’s comments generally rock. And this one is no exception. Yes, Hazaras and Shiites rule! And the Taliban and their supporters don’t.

Homira Nassery February 28, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Actually your comments disappoint me anon as no ethnic group “rocks” more than any other. We are all one people all over the earth. The Taliban are not my faves, but stoking ethnic divisions as you are doing will not help anyone.

Shah Mojadedi February 28, 2011 at 3:55 pm

I agree Homira- Seems very anti Pashtun or something?
Hazara and Shiites rule? Very disapointing or what??

We have our usual Anan problem, getting to be his usual problem self. He lacks some kind of comprehension. Especially since all groups need to work together?

Hazara and Shiites Rule? What does this all mean?
Nathan help us, please.

anan February 28, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Homira, just to be clear Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Persians, Tajiks and Sufis also rock! So do Turks, Chinese, and Russians 🙂

And to be completely clear . . . Punjabis rule!

“all groups need to work together” . . . nicely said Shah Mojadedi.

Your comment below was perceptive. You mentioned how the sluggish Pakistani economy was causing pain to poor village residents and their children who were trying to get jobs in the cities. True. And that is part of the point. Most villagers would like the option of getting a high paying city job even if they chose not to take advantage of it. When the economy is sluggish and locals want the economy to pick up, this is another way to say that locals want more modernization, liberalization [I wouldn’t call it “westernization” per say since I don’t know what that means] and business.

Shah, would you agree that better quality free schooling is a major priority for most villagers?

However, this desire for more economic and educational opportunity coincides with concern that negative westernized [not western] modern negative values might harm traditional values. In many ways this sentiment is shared by cultures and nations around the world.

However, when western leftists imply that “darkies” in poor countries want to stay poor, uneducated, and technologically obsolete . . . this is racist and offensive. Shah, would you agree that the large majority of Pakistani villagers would be besides themselves with pride if their son got a 100% academic scholarship to and graduated top of his class from one of Pakistan’s top universities?

Don Anderson February 28, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Anan, This is why no one can take you seriously ever.

“Shiites and Hazaras Rule.” ??????

This is exactly the kind of thing that should never ever be said. Respect for all creeds is vital. You should know that.

We all hope you grow up someday.

Joshua Foust February 28, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Anan, let’s leave the ethnic politicking for another blog, okay?

anan February 28, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Dude, what would life be without some good rock! 🙂

When I say rock I mean Sherali Ju’rayey rocks. Hussein Kazimi and Fayyaz Hameed rock. Shah Rukh Khan rocks [okay not really a singer, more a lip-sync. But he does it really well 🙂 And I didn’t mention him because he was Pashtun :LOL: ] Palisadian Sajia Kamrany rocks. Sirvan Khosravi and Noor–ul–Ain rock.

Where would we be without rock stars!

Don’t worry about ethnic politicking, I won’t be contesting elections in Afghanistan. 😉

Homira Nassery, really sorry you felt offended. Wasn’t intentional. Was trying to lighten it up. Can’t talk about serious things all the time. Imagine how depressing that would be.

UmairJ February 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I certainly agree that there are many things that foreign aid bring that are an advantage for the villages. I also agree that some ‘cultural traits’, like beating down Hazaras is just wrong. Like in the video when Saber Shah says that ‘…our women may get ideas’. That is of course wrong, but when Saber Shah says it, he says it more out of concern that people will eventually leave the village and live in the city, the village will eventually disappear.

It is very similar to any European village eventually becoming an area of only old people because all the young have left, his concern is the same one any other individual living in a rural area, watching all the young people leaving would have.

Petulant Skeptic February 23, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Umair, you’re making the same implication that Smith made and it’s an obnoxious one. So what if the people leave the village?

They’re leaving the village because their lives will be better elsewhere. Appeals to culture and tradition serve only as impediments to those individuals living, in their own view, more fulfilled lives.

Smith says that building a new modern road to the village has had the unfortunate effect of giving young people a way to leave. Except that this is a negative only in the sense that there is some implied value to the village existing where it is and maintaining an arbitrary population.

Everything in the presentation of this argument serves to ignore the individual agency and consideration with which each individual leaves the village, or abandons old ways. They build a road, “and now the will people leave.” No. The road was built and it created a choice for the people.

To suggest that giving people a choice to live in the village or move to a distant city (i.e. give them a choice previously denied them by logistics or penury) is “cultural imperialism” is retarded. These ‘appeals to nature’ are ubiquitous across cultures, but one thing remains relatively static about them: The people doing the hand wringing over time’s forward march are the ones who cannot or will not adapt to the new circumstances. It’s no coincidence that the old ways often gave these people an immense amount of power.

Unsurprisingly, considering their quotes, the Shah brothers are not peasants in Suwan. Smith tells us they have, thanks to Church World Service, “one of the best houses in his village” and a “family logging business” that is large enough one of the brothers commutes from the city. Small wonder then that they’re not happy with change.

Aside from one quote about how the city changes the villagers for the worse, Smith offers zero reasons why people leaving is a negative. Aside from telling us that there is nearby forest to log (although not for long judging by Saeed’s son’s comments) the village seems bereft of any significance.

Sure, it’s callous to look at a village and the accumulated memories and histories of its people and claim it “insignificant,” but it’s not just me doing it. It’s the people of the village themselves. They are the ones deciding to leave now that they are able to.

I’m not aware of any village (or city, or metropolis) whose value is so high that its citizens ought to be prohibited from leaving so that it can maintain itself in perpetuity. Such things are organic, people tend to go to the place affording them the most opportunity that they can. To impugn that drive and write it off as the effect of Western colonialism (acting under the guise of aid agencies) is to claim that you know what they ought to do better than they themselves do.

anan February 23, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Petulant Skeptic, agreed 110%.

UmairJ, democracy, freedom and human rights are Pakistani values. This said, many Asians [and “darkies” in general] feel extremely offended when some dimwitted westerners claim universal values are “western values.”

The Greeks and Romans and European civilization in general are later offshoots of the ancient Indo-Iranian-Aryan [and Pakistani/Afghan/Central Asian] civilization. There is a tendency on the part of some westerners to not mention how many “western values” and “western characteristics” and “western technologies” are inherited from their non European progenitors , or are evolutions and customizations of what they inherited from non Europeans.
“democracy” itself is a customization of the ancient “Jirga” system of democratized inclusive shared decision making and consensus building. I would imagine that some Pakistanis might look at the achievements of their western offshoot children with pride, and look forward to collaborating with their grown up accomplished children [westerners] to advance human civilization and culture to new heights.

Homira Nassery February 25, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Thank you anon. All human beings want justice and all human beings want a better life for their children. It’s the far liberal left that is coming up with these lame objections to improving the human condition and leveling the field between the haves and the have-nots. Egad.

Jakob February 24, 2011 at 6:26 pm

umair, thanks for pointing out this article. i do agree with skeptic above. apart from the fact that many of the changes smith mentions are not brought by foreigners (neither mobile phones, nor (most) better roads – FWO is doing most of the work here, second are Chinese who really don’t even try to sell “values” in AJK, nor the new houses, that would be ERRA) and the Kashmiris know that. I don’t even think that people like Sabir conflate that. It’s just when we push them to talk about “foreigner”, “values”, “morale” and “women” they will say something along the lines we want to hear – that they feel thretened, that’s common media narrative. In reality they see “foreigner” equally part of the possible vice outside their village perimeter as they see other Pakistanis with similar values they have when it comes to the issues we (Europeans/Westerners) consider “our values”.

I have tried to get to it longer here with what I know from AJK. The paper Graeme refers to is very good by the way (Das/Andrabi).

UmairJ February 25, 2011 at 12:34 am

I certainly understand what you are all saying, and i appreciate the comments.

Homira Nassery February 25, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Josh, I usually like your stuff, but this is an outrageous example of cultural relativism and orientalism. If we become multicultural masochists and cling to respecting other people’s “traditions”, then wouldn’t vaccinations be an infringement of people’s ‘ancient ways’? What about penicillin? Hey, automobiles, cars, trucks, those aren’t traditional – why don’t the Pakistanis/Afghans reject those? Well, because men are empowered by them. When I was in Helmand, a woman and her 10 year old son were hung for having a cell phone on them. Why? The Taliban certainly use technology enthusiastically when it fits their purposes.

Maybe leave development to the development folks? Sorry if I’m being overly harsh, but I’m just dumbfounded. Oy. Perhaps this quote expresses it best:

“We are not living in a museum here. We welcome change. Our culture, our traditions are strong and alive because they adapt, they change. ”
by Antonio, a Huichol Indian leader in Mexico, 1994

Homira Nassery February 25, 2011 at 2:32 pm

p.s. there was a time (many centuries ago) where many Europeans condemned the technologies of ‘the Muslims’ (or at least ‘the Arabs’) as a result of what was changing because of the impact of the ‘dark arts’ of innovations like algebra.

doyle February 25, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Whenever I hear claims of lost tradition or the loss of the “old ways” I chuckle inside as there was once a time that these traditions that are held in such high regard, were new technologies too. Shah may scoff at the mobile phone, but surely there was a time before whistling was the ‘de rigueur’ communication of choice. This is nothing more than the “get the hell off my lawn” mentality which exists above a certain age threshold the world over.

There are reasons why remote areas are shrinking and urban areas are booming and those reasons have little to do with the toxicity of foreign aid.

Graeme Smith February 28, 2011 at 11:59 am

Hey, thanks for mentioning this story. It’s fascinating to read the comments. This is exactly the sort of conversation the article was meant to provoke: What are the cultural effects of aid? Are those effects desirable? Some commenters seem to think I’m only lamenting the loss of old traditions, but that misses the broader point. Villages such as Suwan exist all over the world. Some respond to the encroachment of modern life by picking up guns (or bows and arrows, like the Naxalites), but the vast majority get absorbed peacefully. Why? What makes the difference? Seems like something we need to figure out, especially in places like rural Afghanistan.

Shah Mojadedi February 28, 2011 at 12:49 pm

First of all, let me thank again Mr. Smith for the piece and Umair for posting it.

I did not see the piece the way it has been portrayed. There is more to this than meets the eye.

As a Pashtun we actually talk about these things a lot. What Shah in the village is talking about is much more than resisting change or modernity. I did not see the piece as culturally insensitive at all.

What Shah and Mr. Smith are seeing is really the worry about what life outside of the village is bringing. Most of these villagers do leave and leave of their own choice. But given the actual economic collapse in Pakistan most end up in Pashtun ghettoes in the major cities, I have seen many.

Conditions there are not good, and now work is more scarce. What seems like an ideal American Dream becomes a Pakistani nightmare for many. Pashtun pride prevents us from admitting that we are not doing very well in the city and just going back. However many young men are joining extremist groups or gangs in the cities as a short cut to quick money. This only adds to destabilization.

Getting married is another issue. Even such a simple act requires money and the city goer does not end up very well most of the time. This may not seem important to many but when you consider the huge amount of young people in Pakistan it is important.

I do not see Shah as rejecting penicillin or cell phones. He is rejecting the choice of modernity and exile from a community and knows the results. So many of us were born in refugee camps and know conditions and what is going on in these ghettoes for the Pashtuns.

When the economy was better, going away was an easy choice. Now Pakistan’s economy is shattered and indeed Shah and his concern make sense to many of us. The grass is not always greener on the other side.

This is modern thinking today and I am sure it does not reflect on only Mr. Smith’s portrayal. I have heard the same comments many many times in many places. He did a good job presenting it as it is. This was not twisted in an American form, this is what people say. Reporting it is of real value. We may not like the implications but it is an honest and truthful presentation of what people say together in so many places.

When the discussion of values comes up, once again this is not an issue of simple rejection. It is not only the Drone attacks that worry so many, it is the challenge to our cultural thinking that feels so close and threatening.

His comments about westernization are common beliefs of so many and should be recognized as such. This is REALLY how people think, and the article shows us the logic process so many are using now. This occurs as much in Peshawar as it does in Kabul or Khost and is part and parcel of the current war.

Ignoring the reality of people’s thinking is a mistake, they do not think in western terms. Shah’s thinking honestly reflects the exact thinking of so many, and judging him simply is a serious mistake. The push for a return to more religious values is very very widespread, and along with it an anti western angle. It can not be ignored.

For every success story this decade, there are 20 failures and many broken families on the edge of survival every day. The urban areas are always within one incident of riots as we saw this year in Karachi.

Shah is not a sociologist or urban planner, he is an uneducated simple farmer as most of us are. He is as different from a Western educated Pakistani as he is from an American. The gulf is wide. Many think this way, and it is time some began to understand it. The results of misunderstanding are seen each day in the violence that is occuring in both countries.

Jakob March 1, 2011 at 2:39 pm

As Shah Mojadedi writes, I equally find Smith’s article nor Umair’s post cultural relativism or orientalism of any sort – as Smith points out, especially brought to light due to the drones acceptance debate, figuring out the effects of intervention on people’s hearts and minds (especially in rural areas of which we know very little if only supplied by media) is most essential. And neither in the local Pakistani media nor in Western media is this topic adresses adequately, we prefer to discuss those topics in seminar rooms in the west, detached from the subjects.

But I don’t understand the focus on cultural effects of aid? The examples of foreign women dressing “indecently” and NGO staff breaking cultural norms, exist(ed), but had no lasting effect on the population. It was the development of the area (in terms of AJK, and perhaps now in terms of flood affected areas) that opened more opportunities for (young) people and hence threatens traditions even more. Old traditions like Kashmiri handicrafts were already crumbling years before the earthquake. I hance see it rather as a natural development of the area, that was pushed by the event of the earthquake but would have taken place anyway, even if international aid would have never trickled in.

And, as I stated earlier, I think Kashmiris know that. They don’t connect change in their area with aid influx. For most this change has brought them new opportunities, although at the moment (especially since last year) especially the labour/mistris are having a hard time with construction having come to an aprubt halt in most areas due to high prices.

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