The Hill Times: Imagine, a good news story on Pakistan

We are so used to stories about Pakistan that include terrorism, violence, bombs and bullets. Similarly, we are used to stories about failed foreign aid, fraud, waste, abuse, charities that don’t do what they promise and a growing sense that we have so many problems at home, so why bother doing anything abroad?

A night view of the Hunza Valley. The Ultar Peak in the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan is also seen over the Baltit Fort in Hunza on June 27. (Image credit: Mian Khursheed For The Washington Post)
A night view of the Hunza Valley. The Ultar Peak in the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan is also seen over the Baltit Fort in Hunza on June 27. (Image credit: Mian Khursheed For The Washington Post)

Into that cynical vortex comes a Washington Post story with a very different and welcome message about a part of Pakistan that is using outside money and inside determination to prove the critics wrong and remind us why we should care and why we should support cross-cultural engagement.

Hunza Valley and its capital, Karimabad, were once hotbeds of extremism, violence, poverty, illiteracy and the kind of chaos that spreads and disrupts lives everywhere. Today, because of outside help from organizations like the Aga Khan Foundation and others, things are turning around: Moderate Islam is taking hold, girls are in school, levels of violence have come down and access to healthcare has improved.

The result is that a major newspaper reports that the Hunza Valley is a “bulwark against Islamic extremism.” That is big — something that has tentacles beyond Hunza Valley because terrorism, as we have learned, spreads like a virus, infecting everyone, everywhere. If it can work there, why not elsewhere?

There are hard data to back up the proposition that well-delivered assistance, coordinated on the ground with local citizens, can pay peace dividends. Literacy in Pakistan, for example, nationwide, is 58 percent for girls; some areas have a literacy rate of only 5 percent. In Hunza Valley, with outside help, the national literacy rate is 58 percent and for girls, close to 90 percent, according to the World Bank. What we know from other cases is that literacy leads to good outcomes. A good education leads to employment. Without jobs, people turn to violence. With them, people choose alternatives to violence.

Map of Hunza, Pakistan (Image credit: Washington Post)
Map of Hunza, Pakistan (Image credit: Washington Post)

Another lesson from Pakistan is the value of spending money to improve the lives of women and girls in every corner of the globe, As the Aga Khan IV, Prince Karin Al Husseini, a billionaire philanthropist, tells audiences, “If a man has two children, one boy and one girl, you should educate the daughter first. Because when she is educated, she can educate her entire family.”

For years we in the foreign policy world have tried to make a case for improving the lives of others in harsh places like Pakistan and other countries overseas, but have not really been able to measure it, show it or prove the concept. Now we see how having a well-focused, small but scalable model of engagement, and local buy-in on the ground, can lead to positive results. Imagine if this got scaled up.

So let’s see what’s working in the world and work harder at it.

By Tara Sonenshine, contributor

July 27, 2015, 07:30 am EDT

Sonenshine is based at George Washington University. She served as under secretary of State for public affairs and public diplomacy and is a frequent contributor to

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About The Hill Times

The Hill Times, Canada’s politics and government newsweekly, first rolled off the presses on Oct. 5, 1989, changing the coverage of Canadian federal politics and government forever.

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