Foreign aid dollars promote peace and security -- or do they? This is the fundamental tenet underlying huge amounts of development financing, driven by studies showing that higher household wealth can mean reduced violence or that targeted spending may undermine rebel groups who win allegiance by providing social services.
However, there is also a growing body of evidence to the contrary: in some cases, it seems, introducing aid money into a violent context can increase levels of violence as players scramble to divert or control those dollars. So which is it -- and what does that mean for how governments should spend, if they want to counter insurgencies and rebel groups?
“We want to know the conditions that determine when foreign aid projects ameliorate or exacerbate violent conflict,” says Mike Tierney, co-founder of AidData and Director of the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at the College of William and Mary. By understanding “how different factors -- the amount, type, and location of aid projects -- influence the onset, escalation, and destructiveness of sub-national conflict,” researchers hope to extrapolate “what types of aid interventions can lead to the cessation of conflict and durability of peace settlements.”
AidData has been selected by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative as part of a consortium seeking to answer these questions by exploring the relationship between foreign assistance and intrastate conflict. Led by the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management, the UMD team includes experts from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (Switzerland), and the Institute of Development Studies (UK). The $2.5 million dollar grant will allow academic researchers to examine whether development aid makes countries more or less resistant to violent conflict within their own borders.
Visualization of World Bank aid locations along with conflict and ethnic divisions in Ethiopia
If there is a link between development funding and resilience in the face of potential conflict, researchers want to know where, when, and why this occurs, giving policy makers a better sense of how to allocate resources to promote stability.
In collaboration with these research teams, AidData is geocoding aid projects in seven countries with conflict zones, beginning with Iraq and Nigeria, and will build a prototype of a dashboard to visualize the study’s findings. The customizable dashboard will include a mapping component, allowing users to understand how aid and conflict interact at specific sub-national locations.
AidData’s contribution also includes “the most comprehensive datasets in the world on foreign aid and other types of development finance,” says Tierney. “We cover more dollars and more donors than any other source, so if you want to know the impact of aid on conflict, you want the most comprehensive source.”
Dan Runfola, Geospatial Scientist at AidData, sums up the importance of the project’s focus: “Conflict between countries has been falling dramatically for decades, while conflict within countries continues to be a considerable issue worldwide. By using subnational information, intra-state conflict can be assessed in a data-driven way.”