Providing Foreign Aid: Need, Self-Interest, or Something Else?

The study of development assistance or foreign aid often examines whether it is effective or not or why aid is allocated in the first place. A debate over aid efficacy between the aid enthusiasts, such as Jeffrey Sachs, and the aid skeptics, like William Easterly, continues without signs of abating. One way possibly out of this spiral is better evidence. The following symposium attempts to humbly add to this effort. [1]

Recent studies of humanitarian foreign aid allocation suggest donors are strategic in their decisions regarding where to provide assistance (Drury et al. 2005, Moyo 2009).  The forthcoming ISQ article, Is US Humanitarian Aid Based Primarily on Need or Self-Interest?” by Rob Kevlihan, Karl DeRouen Jr and Glen Biglaiser (KDB) offers evidence suggesting that at least in the US case, aid may be allocated based on need alone. 

Why does the US give humanitarian aid? The cynic, or realist, claims that the US, or any similarly placed state in the international system provides financial assistance in the face of some form of human disaster when the donor receives a benefit. That benefit could be security or some other self-interest, but the humanitarian needs of the recipient country are not the primary consideration. KDB among others suggest that need may be a driving force, especially in the US case. This impact, KDB suggest, is conditional on the time period under consideration. They find that aid follows the US National Security strategy of 2002 and 2010 and humanitarian concern is an important driver blending realist and more hopeful assessments of the distribution of aid.

Do these results maintain when the data are subjected to replication by outside aid experts? The standard in academic is to simply not answer this question. Many journals do not publish replications, even though implications from research on foreign aid among other topics needs to have solid empirical footing. Taxpayer money is used and lives are affected. Part of the goal of this symposium is to address this weakness by replicating KDB’s results by two separate first-rate scholars, Sarah Bush from Temple University and Matthew Winters from the University of Illinois, that specialize in this research domain.

Each scholar takes the results from the paper seriously and subjects these data to new tests as well as prods the limits of the inferences from the data.

 Sarah Bush, in her post, first lauds KDB for extending the study of foreign aid into the humanitarian aid sector, which is relatively unexplored. [2]  She offers an extension that takes corruption into consideration. In short, corruption in the recipient country could cause selection effects where less corrupt countries are more likely to receive aid. She tests this possibility using multiple corruption measures and examines how this might support or invalidate the central claims of KDB.

In Matt Winters contribution, he offers a simpler empirical strategy than KDB to investigate country differences as many of KDB’s variables of interest are slow-moving over time. He also subjects the tests to an interaction, which may be closer to some of the beliefs about how aid operates. Finally, he offers an alternative strategic interest story that might account for the empirical evidence. [3]

In the final contribution, KDB respond to the pieces by Bush and Winter and suggest avenues for future research.


[1] Another important approach, spearheaded by groups, such as Experiments in Governance and Politics (EGAP), uses field experiments to identify the causal influence of interventions like aid on governance in locations around the globe. 

[2] See AidData.org for foreign aid broken out by sector and readily available for empirical analysis.

[3] All of the materials for replicating the results of the symposium are available here.

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