Until I moved to the US for graduate school, I had never given much thought to foreign aid funding. For me, having lived most of my life in India, the questions had always been about which programs produce the best outcomes, which are most cost-effective, and therefore, which policy solutions would serve best. How programs were funded was secondary. While I was familiar with the long-standing, high-level debate over whether aid works at all (recently popularized by the polarized views of the likes of Jeffery Sachs and William Easterly), upon arriving at UT Austin, I was struck by how topical aid was, from speaker events at the LBJ School, where data, transparency, and aid allocation were the buzzwords, to casual conversations with classmates wanting to work in international development, and to whom development was so synonymous with aid.
But perhaps I ought not have been so surprised – after all, the US is the largest provider of foreign aid. As I set about acquainting myself with the unfamiliar waters of foreign aid (and navigating through the acronyms and the jargon), I found this review of the aid landscape by Nancy Qian, Associate Professor of Economics at Yale University, most interesting. Here are some key facts that caught my attention:
Qian also notes how studies that seek to measure the effectiveness of aid can be problematic. For starters, several of these studies use aggregate ODA. But aggregate ODA, is a bundle of various types of aid, such as cash transfers, debt relief, and food aid. Each component influences different outcomes in the recipient country, and using an aggregate outcome measure, such as growth, can be problematic. Also, the fact that a significant proportion of aid is spent in donor countries complicates the valuation of aid. There are other issues that compound the valuation problem. For instance, food aid is valued according to prices in the donor country, which can be higher than food prices in the recipient country.
Qian’s findings only reiterate the futility of trying to answer the broad-brush question of whether aid works. Instead, as she asserts, these issues point to a need for future studies to assess “the effect of a narrowed definition of aid on a narrowed set of outcomes,” and also to understand how foreign aid can be improved or re-designed.
Swetha Selva is a Master’s candidate in Global Policy Studies at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.
Speaking at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm in 1957, Albert Camus insisted that the writer of any generation bears a heavy obligation to serve the citizens of that generation. “The writer’s role is not free from difficulties,” he asserted. “He cannot put himself today into the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it." As researchers and writers disseminating our work in a world where information is more available than ever before, we bear a similar obligation to our generation’s citizens. We must write about our findings in ways that accurately portray the lives and communities of our subjects of interest. Above all, we must avoid bias and misrepresentation as we report on issues and individuals historically plagued by narrative inaccuracies.
In June 2013, I traveled as an undergraduate research assistant to East Africa with IPD co-founder Dr. Michael Findley and my friend and IPD colleague Caroline Thomas. Our time in Uganda and Rwanda provided many insights, through both academic research and everyday interactions, into Western misperceptions of life in Africa.
During a six-week, mentored field experiment that we co-designed and executed (along with a team of our peers from the AidData Research Consortium), we tasked local Ugandan photographers with capturing images of daily life and poverty in Kampala, the capital city. We then surveyed Ugandan citizens about the accuracy of the images. We found preliminary evidence that photographers were more likely to sensationalize their images when they received certain prompts as to the intended use of their photographs. For the group of photographers that generated our most significant results, the prompt was that their photographs would be used to raise funds for an international NGO. While this initial experiment was brief, we were able to craft a method for measuring inaccuracies in reporting poverty and development issues. Measuring bias and inaccuracy in depictions of poverty can serve as the first step towards reversing this trend.
Sadly, one key variable of interest that we were unable to measure in our study was motivation. Omitting any outright intention to deceive the public, what drives photographers, writers, and other members of the media to produce flawed representations of reality? Perhaps media (in this case photographers) seek to portray an image that they perceive as expected by, or familiar to, their audience. In the case of our fundraising for NGOs prompt, it is possible the sensationalized photographs were composed inaccurately in order to motivate donors to give more.
But even this type of “good-hearted” motivation is problematic. When we learn inaccuracies, we replicate them and disseminate them to others. Because of this cycle, yet another generation’s understanding of its global neighbors is subject to distortion. To consumers of inaccurate images, all African children continue to be doe-eyed with bloated bellies and empty plates. All African women continue to be victims of repression, child-rearing subjects without any innovative ideas of their own but with plenty of grass balanced atop their helpless heads. The generalizations seem to go on forever.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie refers to this type of narrative as “the single story,” and she warns us of its danger. Describing her first exposure to the handcrafted goods for sale in rural villages in her native Nigeria, Adichie, who had experienced an urban, “developed” childhood, recalls:
“I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in [in the villages] could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”
As social science researchers communicating our findings to an audience beyond academia, we must embrace with rigor our obligation of service to our subjects of interest, to those collections of people that we seek to understand, and to the individuals who encounter the phenomena that we seek to explain. We must take care to depart from stereotypes that classify as “Other” our fully equal, fully human global neighbors. We must design research that blurs the line between Global South and North and other dangerous binaries, bearing always in mind how recently our predecessors were producing misleading narratives of a “dark” continent, “savage” inhabitants, and “backward” societies.
With each key and pen stroke, we wield the opportunity to condemn and correct these types of inaccurate representations as we continue swiftly down a new and different path. The “single story” is ours to rewrite; its gaps are ours to fill. Striving for accuracy and cognizant of our collective tendency toward bias, today’s generation of emerging researchers stands poised to deliver a service that an information-saturated generation is aching to receive: the truth.
Raymond Weyandt is a senior studying Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He is part of IPD's Communications team and worked previously on IPD's Conflict and Development team.