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BYU students ask: Has foreign aid done any good?

After helping to build a search engine tracking $4.2 trillion in foreign aid, BYU undergraduates are at Oxford this week to present their research on aid’s impact in developing countries.

BYU’s Political Science Department has partnered with the College of William & Mary to create AidData, a database of development aid given by wealthy nations and international organizations like the World Bank. AidData’s predecessor, Project-Level Aid, was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

BYU political science professors Mike Findley, Darren Hawkins, Dan Nielson and Sven Wilson are involved with AidData and mentor students on individual research projects.

Behind each student project is the overarching question of whether development aid actually works. Their specific questions zero in on topics like education, corruption and donors’ transparency in the aid they give. Here is a sampling of their results:

Education spending may not mean more kids in schools

Throwing a ton of money at a problem doesn’t always fix it. BYU undergrad Dustin Homer analyzed massive education loans given to developing countries and found no noticeable improvements in enrollment rates.

“On a big level, it doesn’t seem to be working,” Dustin said. “It’s important to know so that we can do things differently.”

Dustin notes that the analysis did not include private giving or the work of entrepreneurs like Greg Mortenson, who recently spoke at BYU about promoting peace through education.

“Small entrepreneurs are doing a lot of good, but you need to find a way to make that happen on a big scale,” Dustin said.

Dustin is a senior at BYU majoring in political science.

Transportation aid connected to corruption

BYU undergrad Janessa Sarmiento wanted to know whether certain types of aid influenced the level of corruption in receiving countries. Combining AidData with an international index of country-level corruption, she found that transportation funding is significantly related to higher corruption.

A silver lining to her work is that “civil society” aid – the kind that fosters citizen participation in government – has the opposite effect. In fact, a dollar spent on civil society aid reduces more corruption than a transportation dollar creates.

“Aid can be helpful when applied in the right sectors of development, hopefully leading to better policy decisions and allocations of foreign aid,” Janessa said.

Janessa is majoring in international relations at BYU and plans on a career in humanitarian aid.

Donor transparency and corruption

Sometimes one nation sends aid to another to curry favor in advance of a particular U.N. vote or in a bid for access to natural resources. In such cases, it’s not always clear what the funds are meant to accomplish or how exactly they should be spent.

However, when a donor country makes a project’s goals and intent highly transparent, it appears that corruption declines in the receiving country.

“There are a lot of things that developed countries do that perpetuate problems in developing countries,” said BYU student Zach Christensen. “This paper would argue that more of the blame lies with the West and donors than we’d like to admit.”

Zach is majoring in international relations at BYU and would like to pursue a Ph.D. after graduation.

Health and education funding in demand

The last few decades have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of aid dedicated to improving health and education in developing countries. Professor Nielson and others recently published a paper showing that the shift came in response to a demand for health and education aid by poor nations.

“That surprises some people who like to think that the powerful nations are calling all the shots on foreign aid,” Nielson said. “Our study shows that the receiving countries also have influence.”

For more details about AidData, see this news release from William & Mary. The data is publicly accessible at this site.


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