Chinese and U.S. Foreign Assistance: Who Wins in Uganda?

Research suggests a stronger support for U.S. aid than for China’s among a representative random sample of Ugandans.

March 13, 2013
Dan Nielson, Helen Milner, Mike Findley

The following is a guest post by Professors Helen Milner of Princeton University, Dan Nielson of Brigham Young University, and Mike Findley of The University of Texas-Austin.


In 2012, researchers from Princeton, University of Texas, and Brigham Young University randomly sampled a representative group of nearly 3600 Ugandan citizens throughout Uganda and also interviewed a large sample of local council leaders and national members of parliament.  They asked four sets of questions to citizens, local council elected officials, and members of parliament.

A survey on Uganda preferences vis-a-vis U.S. and China revealed the following 4 results:

1.) Ugandan citizens trust the U.S. more than China

2.) Uganda local leaders trust U.S. individuals over Chinese individuals

3.) Local leaders have high recognition and high levels of support for the U.S. Agency for International Development

4.) Ugandans prefer U.S. aid over Chinese aid

Which country do Ugandans trust?

First, we asked citizens how much they trusted the United States vs. China. Citizens report 3.0 for the United States vs. 2.6 for China (on a scale of 1 to 4 with 4 being most positive). When subject to a statistical “difference of means” test, we can conclude with high confidence that the observed difference is meaningful and not due to random chance. This means that there is a significant preference among Ugandan citizens favoring the U.S. over China.

ugandan citizens levels of trust

Which individuals do Ugandans trust?

Second, we asked local council leaders about how much they trusted the U.S. people vs. the people of China. We learn that the mean level of trust in U.S. people is 3.2 in contrast to a trust score of 2.8 for Chinese people (with 4 being the most positive). A statistical difference in means test shows that these two scores are meaningfully different from each other. These local leaders show evidence for preferring the U.S. to China.

What is the impression of USAID?

Third, we asked citizens, local council leaders, and members of parliament whether they had heard of USAID and, if so, how much they trusted it. For the three groups, 42% of citizens had heard of USAID, 96% of local council leaders report having heard of USAID, and 94% of members of parliament report having heard of USAID. For those having heard of USAID, citizens reported a mean level of trust in the Agency of 3.4 (on a scale from 1 to 4, with 4 being highest). Local council leaders reported the highest mean level of trust for USAID at 3.7 out of 4. And members of parliament reported levels of trust at 3.6. These are quite strong expressions of support for USAID.

U.S. Aid or Chinese Aid?

To learn how citizens view foreign aid from the U.S. vs. China, we presented information about actual aid projects that were co-financed by international organizations where both the U.S. and China have seats on the executive boards. We randomly assigned the named donor in an experiment, so all other factors were held constant and only the name of the donors was altered. In this second step, we asked citizens to express varying degrees of support (or lack thereof) depending on whether the aid project came from the U.S. or China.  Each step in this involved an increased level of cost for the respondent and hence we believe revealed stronger evidence for their stated preference. There were six levels of support citizens could offer:

    1.) They could say how much they supported the project on a scale from 1 to 4,

            with 4 being high support

    2.) They could commit to telling their local leaders about their preferences for the aid project

    3.) They could commit to signing a petition to be delivered to the government and donors

            signaling their preferences

    4.) They could actually sign a petition, which we provided to them that would be delivered

            to the donors

    5.) They could commit to sending an SMS/text expressing their preferences about the project

    6.) They could actually send the SMS/text for which we provided requisite information to them

In four of the six cases, we observed no difference in citizens’ willingness to differentiate between the U.S. and China. Specifically, in numbers 1, 3, 4, and 5, citizens were nearly indifferent between the U.S. and China. However, individuals were more willing to tell their local leaders that they supported U.S. projects. Citizens also sent the SMS/text message more frequently in support of U.S. projects over Chinese projects. Indeed, the proportion of citizens sending texts in support of U.S. projects tripled compared to Chinese projects (9 percent vs. 3 percent).

These findings suggest stronger support for U.S. aid than for China’s among a representative random sample of Ugandans.

Dan Nielson is a Professor and Associate Chair of Political Science at Brigham Young University.