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Return on American humanitarian aid: They like us

From Indonesia – the world's largest Muslim nation – to Pakistan, recipients of American humanitarian aid improve their opinions of the United States, especially when that aid is targeted at individuals, and not governments.

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A Kashmiri woman looks outside through the window of a US helicopter as she is evacuated from the earthquake area of Pakistani Kashmir on Oct. 17, 2005. Op-ed contributors Ken Ballen and David Caprara write: 'While the favorable impact of intense disaster assistance following the 2005 earthquake declined in subsequent years among Pakistanis throughout the country, US assistance had a long-lasting effect on attitudes at the local level among those directly impacted by the aid.'

Anjum Naveed/AP/file

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As the United States approaches the fiscal deadline looming early next year, it is also time to assess the future – and “return on investment” – of American humanitarian assistance around the world.

There is a growing body of research to suggest that US humanitarian aid to developing nations results in substantial benefits to the US itself.

Beyond the self-evident worth of compassion toward those in need, global humanitarian assistance serves the self-interest of the US and other donor countries by substantially improving public attitudes about the giving nation, justifying such help in an era of growing budgetary constraints and slow economic growth.

First, there is clear evidence that large-scale disaster assistance can dramatically move public attitudes, as found in surveys by Terror Free Tomorrow, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.

For instance, two-thirds of Indonesians favorably changed their opinion of the US because of the generous American response to the tsunami in 2004. The highest percentage of that group was among those under age 30. Even 71 percent of self-identified Osama bin Laden supporters adopted a favorable view of the United States.

Moreover, as a direct result of the American effort, support for Al Qaeda and terrorist attacks dropped by half in Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim country. Even two years later, 6 in 10 Indonesians continued to state that American humanitarian aid made them favorable to the United States.

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