source: Ariana Cubillos/ AP
In 2012, AidData began developing an innovative methodology that enables the systematic collection of project-level development finance data from media sources for donors that are either unwilling or unable to disclose such information. A project funded by the Roy R. Charles Centerat the College of William and Mary program employed this media-based data collection (MBDC) methodology to produce a dataset that captures more than $7.6 billion (2009 USD) in Venezuelan development finance from 2000 to 2011. To our knowledge, this dataset is the first source of information that systematically documents Venezuela's development cooperation activities at the project level. The scope of the dataset is currently limited to Venezuelan activities in the Caribbean. In principle, however, the methodology could be used to capture the full geographic reach of Venezuelan development programming [pdf].
In recent years, Venezuela has emerged as a major source of development finance [pdf], and an active sponsor of South-South development cooperation activities. But Venezuela’s political climate is not one that currently promotes the transparency of development finance information.
AidData researchers have circumvented this informational obstacle by employing media-based methods to shed light on Venezuela's extensive infrastructure and oil programs in the Caribbean, particularly through Petrocaribe. This methodology (which will soon be published) has strengths and weaknesses.
Strengths and weaknesses of MBDC data
One major strength is that it centralizes and systematizes otherwise scattered information, thereby laying a foundation for analysis. Another advantage is that it often yields information that would not be reflected in the official data supplied by sovereign governments. For example, by collecting project-specific data from various media reports that trace a project's development and implementation over time, media reports might reveal how an initial idea evolved into a full-fledged partnership, such as a Cuban-Venezuelan oil exchange. News reports can also call attention to the factors that promote or undermine the success of development projects. For example, one media report that we used to track Venezuela's activities in the Caribbean indicated that differences in electrical standards between Venezuela and Grenada resulted in major project implementation delays.
However, AidData's MBDC methodology also presents measurement challenges, as media reports can yield conflicting information. The lack of standardized financial information can also make it difficult to categorize and verify reported financial flows. In Venezuela's case, these problems are exacerbated by the government's unconventional style of structuring and delivering development assistance. For example, Venezuelan funding schemes often include reciprocal aid exchanges that allow countries to pay for subsidized oil through trade. These non-traditional South-South cooperation mechanisms make it difficult to quantify the monetary value of some Venezuelan development cooperation activities.
It’s no surprise, then, that many media reports fail to assign specific monetary values to Venezuela's overseas development activities. Our dataset of Venezuelan "aid" to the Caribbean lacks monetary values for 84 of 176 projects. As illustrated in the graph below, this absence of information particularly affects estimates of Venezuela’s subsidized crude oil sales through its infrastructure and energy programs, as well as the country’s substantial humanitarian and disaster aid programming.
Additionally, in the case of humanitarian and disaster aid, media reports often lack the information needed to convert in-kind contributions to financial sums. This absence of monetary values suggests that the total financial value of Venezuelan development finance and cooperation activities in the Caribbean may be significantly higher than what is reflected in this dataset.
Ultimately, the media-based data are an imperfect substitute for official statistics. In the absence of official data, however, media-based methods can help policymakers, practictioners and researchers significantly improve their understanding of the distribution and impact of non-DAC development finance and South-South cooperation activities.