The First Tranche
AidData's Blog
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Kyra Solomon
Junior Program Manager
Bradley C. Parks
Executive Director
Sarina Patterson
Communications Specialist

TUFF Cookies: Students aim for policy impact through hard-hitting research, part two

From loans repaid with the proceeds from cocoa bean sales to payments encouraging North Korea to participate in nuclear negotiations, AidData’s Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) team tracks it all.

September 26, 2021
Kyra Solomon, Brad Parks, Sarina Patterson
TUFF team staff and student research assistants stand on the porch of the Global Research Institute in their TUFF Cookie team shirts. Back row: Andy Shufer, Sailor Miao, and Dr. Ammar Malik (Senior Research Scientist and head of AidData’s China Development Finance Program). Middle row: Kyra Solomon (Junior Program Manager) and Thai-Binh Elston (Junior Program Manager). Bottom row: Rory Fedorochko and Sam Rofman. Photo by Carla Talbert/GRI, all rights reserved.

TUFF team staff and student research assistants stand on the porch of the Global Research Institute in their TUFF Cookie team shirts. Back row: Andy Shufer, Sailor Miao, and Dr. Ammar Malik (Senior Research Scientist and head of AidData’s China Development Finance Program). Middle row: Kyra Solomon (Junior Program Manager) and Thai-Binh Elston (Junior Program Manager). Bottom row: Rory Fedorochko and Sam Rofman. Photo by Carla Talbert/GRI, all rights reserved. 

The result of more than 100 undergraduate and graduate research assistants’ work at AidData over the past four years is a new dataset covering more than 13,000 Chinese government-financed development projects across 165 countries worldwide that will be released September 29, alongside a new report entitled Banking on the Belt and Road

“This release is taking place at a pivotal moment. After eight years of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the US and its allies are now seeking to develop an alternative to the BRI through the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative,” said Dr. Ammar Malik, an author of the report and Senior Research Scientist who oversees AidData’s Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) team of staff and student research assistants and leads AidData’s China Development Finance Program

“As we enter this new era of strategic rivalry, it will be more important than ever that G7, Chinese, and host country policymakers rely on hard evidence rather than opinions and conjecture,” said Dr. Bradley Parks, an author of the report and AidData’s Executive Director.

This data collection and research program would not have been possible without a dedicated and skilled team of student research assistants working on AidData’s TUFF team.

Skills brought, skills built

“I think I would describe the TUFF team as incredibly cohesive and hard-working. Every week as we participate in meetings to evaluate progress and troubleshoot, it's evident that everyone is diligently working on their own, but we are all working towards a shared goal,” said first-year Andy Shufer ‘25. 

“For example, there were times where one research assistant was not able to translate a certain article due to language barriers, so as a team, we figured out a way to shift that responsibility to someone who is fluent in the language,” continued Shufer.

“My mother language is Chinese, so my language skills were well-utilized,” added Yuxin Qin ‘23, an Applied Mathematics and Studio Art major. “I can read and translate reports written in Chinese, and I learned how to identify high-quality sources and data for the team.” 

Research assistants on the team frequently develop and utilize new skills, including the use of foreign languages and the ability to pinpoint the key features of complex financial transactions.

“I was assigned to French-speaking countries, so I’ve been picking up common French words,” said Sailor Miao ‘24, a Government and Spanish major. “At the same time, I familiarized myself with key terms and concepts from finance and accounting as I collected information from Chinese state-owned banks.”

Research assistants do not only make significant contributions to the data and analysis published by AidData. Being part of the TUFF team is also a unique learning opportunity that helps student research assistants round out their university experience.

“I came to TUFF with little background experience or knowledge in project finance, so every day I learn a little bit more about the wide array of tools and mechanisms that are used by international development financiers,” said recent graduate Jack Mackey ‘21.

Poojitha Tanjore ‘23, an International Relations major, had some words of encouragement for new TUFF team members: “You’re going to get really good at reviewing source materials in languages you don’t speak, and it will be a skill you can use in many different types of jobs down the line.”

Part of the team

Work on the TUFF team has been largely remote for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that has not diminished team interaction and bonding.

“My teammates and I usually work on different projects or tasks, but we are still able to connect with each other and learn about each other’s work and life through weekly meetings,” said Qin. “These interactions can bring much-needed cheer during COVID.”

The flexible work schedule and team dynamic is a draw for most student research assistants.

“It’s an extremely collaborative environment, and we definitely laugh a lot,” said Sam Rofman ‘22, a Data Science major. “The TUFF team is also globally-minded and we’re not afraid to geek out over data. I’d say we’re a group of intellectually curious problem solvers. When there’s a super complicated or difficult project, our perseverance and dedication really shine through. We’re pretty ‘TUFF cookies’ if you ask me (be sure to check out our team shirts!),” said Rofman.

Shufer encouraged others to join the team: “TUFF is an incredibly rewarding experience, as not only is it quite tough—pun intended—but there is also a great support system, and the people around you are always willing to help out to make sure that you are on track.”

Looking forward

On September 29, AidData staff and student research assistants on the TUFF team are looking forward to releasing the 2.0 version of AidData's Global Chinese Development Finance Dataset, which will create a stronger evidentiary foundation for ongoing discussion and debate about China’s role as a global benefactor, banker, and builder. 

TUFF research assistants, who implemented the updated (2.0) methodology, are especially proud of the fact that the new dataset captures financial and in-kind transfers from an expanded pool of official donors and lenders; documents more of the terms and conditions that govern financial agreements with developing countries; tracks the implementation of projects over time and geographic space with higher levels of measurement precision; and provides detailed narrative descriptions that explain how Chinese development projects are being designed, implemented, monitored, and evaluated in practice

They hope that the dataset and the accompanying report, Banking on the Belt and Road, will facilitate rigorous analysis and support evidence-based decision-making inside and outside of China. 

“This endeavor has been four years in the making, and I’m so proud of the hard work that we’ve put into this dataset,” said Rofman. “I’m also very much looking forward to meeting with the team in person once we’re able. Since I started on the team in Summer 2020, everything has been virtual. It will be fun to discover how tall everyone actually is!”

“The TUFF team’s work is extremely important; our data and analysis is used extensively by policymakers and it fuels the work of leading academics around the world,” said Rory Fedorochko ‘22, a History and International Relations major. “It is truly extraordinary that, as college students and recent graduates, we have an opportunity to influence those who make and shape policy on one of the most important issues of our time.”

Kyra Solomon is a Junior Program Manager on the Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) team

Brad Parks is Executive Director of AidData at the College of William & Mary. His research is focused on aid allocation and impact, development policy and practice, and the design and implementation of policy and institutional reforms in low and lower-middle income countries. 

Sarina Patterson is AidData's Communications Specialist.