Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Does Humanitarian Aid Improve America’s Image?

By Richard Wike, Associate Director, Pew Global Attitudes Project

Nearly a year ago, as Japan struggled with the devastation wrought by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the United States military launched “Operation Tomodachi,” a major humanitarian aid mission, to help the Japanese government respond to the crisis. The effort made a strong impression on the Japanese people – ratings for the U.S. reached sky-high levels following the American mission. And it was not the first time that relief to those in need has enhanced America’s reputation. In recent years, both Indonesians and Pakistanis have expressed more positive views about the U.S. after receiving significant levels of disaster relief. However, the Indonesian and Pakistani examples also suggest that the impact of humanitarian efforts has its limits.

In Japan, America’s overall image was already quite positive before the tsunami. Roughly two-in-three Japanese respondents (66%) expressed a favorable view of the U.S. in a spring 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. But a year later, in a Pew survey conducted just weeks after the tsunami, 85% gave the U.S. a positive rating, the highest percentage among 23 nations polled. Similarly, a September-October, 2011 survey, conducted by the Japanese Cabinet Office, found 82% expressing a “friendly feeling” toward the U.S., the highest percentage since the annual poll began in 1978.

Of course, many things can affect how people view the U.S., but the aid clearly had an impact. Nearly six-in-ten Japanese (57%) said the U.S. provided a “great deal” of assistance following the disaster, while another 32% said the U.S. gave a “fair amount” of assistance. In contrast, fewer than one-in-five believed the European Union, United Nations, or China had provided a great deal of aid.

Japanese public opinion also shifted on an issue that is frequently a weak spot of America’s global image: the perception that the U.S. tends to ignore the interests of other countries. In 2010, just 31% of Japanese respondents said the U.S. takes into account the interests of countries like Japan; a year later, 51% held this view.

Indonesia is another example of a country where humanitarian efforts led to a more positive image for the U.S.; and importantly, it is an example of improvement in a predominantly Muslim nation where opinions of the U.S. had soured dramatically after the onset of the Iraq war. Prior to Iraq, the U.S. was generally popular in Indonesia, but in a 2003 poll taken after American forces dislodged Saddam Hussein from power, only 15% of Indonesians expressed a favorable opinion of the U.S.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project next surveyed Indonesia in spring 2005, only months after the devastating December 2004 tsunami that struck the Banda Aceh region and other parts of the country. Roughly eight-in-ten (79%) said that post-tsunami aid from the U.S. had improved their impression of America, and positive views of the U.S. more than doubled, rising from 15% in 2003 to 38% in the 2005 poll. Meanwhile, the percentage saying the U.S. takes into account the interests of countries like Indonesia jumped from 25% in 2003 to 59% in 2005.

Still, the Indonesian example also illustrates the limits of the aid effect. Attitudes toward the U.S. improved significantly in 2005, but they did not bounce back to pre-Iraq war levels; and ratings for the U.S. again slipped somewhat in 2006. America’s image did not truly recover until 2009, when President Barack Obama – who lived in Jakarta for several years as a child – took office.

A starker example of the limits of disaster relief is Pakistan. Following a devastating October 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, the U.S. pledged significant levels of aid, eventually totaling more than $500 million. Shortly after the tragedy, U.S. Chinook helicopters could be seen rescuing victims. A spring 2006 Global Attitudes survey found that the vast majority of Pakistanis were aware of American relief efforts – 85% said they had heard about post-earthquake aid – and views of the U.S. improved modestly, with 27% of Pakistanis giving the U.S. a positive rating, up from 23% the previous year.

There is some evidence that the U.S. assistance did have a long-lasting effect on attitudes at the local level–among those directly impacted by the aid. In a survey conducted four years after the earthquake, researchers Tahir Andrabi and Jishnu Das found that Pakistanis living near the fault line were more likely to express trust in Americans and Europeans than were those living farther away. Andrabi and Das reasoned that this higher level of trust was a result of greater exposure to Western humanitarian aid organizations in these hard hit areas.

But at the national level, Pew surveys illustrate how quickly the goodwill receded. By spring 2007, U.S. favorability had slipped to 15% in Pakistan.

Similarly, the U.S. received no image boost in 2011, despite providing nearly $600 million in disaster relief following the summer 2010 floods that directly affected as many as 20 million Pakistanis. Only 11% of Pakistanis offered a favorable opinion of the U.S. in an April 2011 Pew survey – a decline of six percentage points from 2010. (The poll was conducted prior to the military raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but a subsequent Pew survey in May 2011 found no significant change in overall ratings for the U.S.).

Why no image bump in Pakistan? Distrust of American motives and opposition to key elements of U.S. foreign policy may run too deep in Pakistan for humanitarian efforts to have a significant impact over the long term. About seven-in-ten Pakistanis see the U.S. as an enemy; less than 10% consider it a partner. Most think the U.S. favors archrival India over Pakistan. American anti-terrorism efforts are viewed with suspicion, the drone campaign and the war next door in Afghanistan are widely opposed, and while President Obama receives significantly higher ratings than his predecessor across much of the globe, this is not the case in Pakistan, where Obama gets essentially the same low marks assigned to former President George W. Bush during his tenure.

The lesson for disaster relief efforts is that they are more likely to have a significant effect on public attitudes in countries where there is at least a reservoir of goodwill toward the U.S. In nations such as Pakistan, where countervailing issues and deeply held suspicions drive intense anti-Americanism, enhancing America’s image through humanitarian aid may prove considerably more difficult.

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