Where is AidData heading next?

A quick look at our organizational strategy for 2023-2026.

September 14, 2023
Brad Parks
Spring leaves grow on a tree. Photo by Grigory Bruev via Adobe Stock, used under the Standard license.

Spring leaves grow on a tree. Photo by Grigory Bruev via Adobe Stock, used under the Standard license.

AidData recently adopted a new organizational strategy. Over the next three years, we will prioritize two core objectives: (1) creating more voice and choice for development decision-makers in the Global South, and (2) promoting change among development finance institutions that is responsive to partner country needs and perspectives and underpinned by rigorous and independent analysis.  

We’ve benefited enormously from the support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which recently awarded AidData a $1.5 million grant to support the implementation of our 2023-2026 organizational strategy. From AidData’s earliest days, the Hewlett Foundation has been a trusted partner, as we have a shared commitment to evidence-informed policymaking, inclusive governance, and gender equity. 

Putting together our new strategy was a team effort at AidData, requiring organizational introspection about what has worked and what has not—as well as thoughtful discussions on how best we can pursue our mission moving forward. I’m grateful to my wonderful colleagues for the intellectual energy that they brought to the process.  

Before I introduce our five areas of organizational focus, let me step back and share a few lessons learned and how we’re going to apply them going forward. 

Over the last three years, we weathered many of the same challenges as every other organization, chief of which was the pandemic, with all of its ramifications for how and where we (as an organization and as individual team members) do our work. Plans and programs changed. New opportunities opened up. Others closed off. Our new organizational strategy comes just as the world appears to be returning to a semblance of normal, or perhaps the new normal.

Some things, however, remain constant. For some 12 years it’s been my privilege to lead an ever-evolving group of faculty, staff and students as we generate evidence to help decision-makers—inside and outside of government—design, implement, and evaluate policies and investments in ways that improve the well-being of people in the Global South. We remain committed to the belief that AidData can make a modest but meaningful difference by focusing its efforts on data-poor environments where there are unmet needs for rigorous evidence and actionable insights. Our organizational calling card is that we help policymakers and practitioners tackle seemingly unsolvable problems which require the creation of granular data or innovative methods that do not yet exist.

Incorporating lessons

We are living in an era of global polycrisis. A complex set of shocks and stressors—including war, pandemic, climate change, migration, socioeconomic inequality, institutional distrust, debt distress, and political polarization—are interacting with each other in compounding, self-perpetuating, and unpredictable ways. Global polycrisis impacts everyone, but it disproportionately affects those who are poor, vulnerable, and disaffected, and especially those living in the Global South. Now, more than ever, decision-makers need to be able to pinpoint needs and target resources to these populations with higher levels of precision. They need faster and cheaper ways to identify the policies and investments that are most effective at increasing local resilience to global shocks and stressors. With great powers competing to influence the policies and priorities of developing countries and global institutions struggling to respond to an ever-growing set of national and transnational challenges, the leaders and citizens of developing countries also need more voice and choice to shape these conversations in ways that protect their own interests and create space for needed collaboration around global public goods.

We’ve also discovered that the demand for data, evidence, insights and policy advice far exceeds supply. Because of this, we plan to double down on efforts to support, extend, and leverage the work of like-minded policy research organizations and government agencies in the Global South, and equip them where we can with these types of data and methods.

Internally, we’ve learned that sustainable organizational growth requires a higher level of burden-sharing, which in turn requires the training and mentorship of a new generation of leaders. So we’ve been engaged in an effort to build a deeper bench of intellectual leaders at AidData who can help us oversee an increasingly diverse portfolio of priorities, projects, and partnerships. We’ve nearly quadrupled the total number of Lead Principal Investigators (Lead PIs) and Co-Principal Investigators (Co-PIs). Strengthening our organizational resilience will require that we devote more efforts to training and mentoring the next generation of AidData leaders.

AidData has also sought to more effectively integrate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into our workplace via internal surveys (to identify problems and potential solutions by listening to staff), trainings (to ensure our team has a common language and set of expectations for how we want to embody DEI principles in our work), and hiring practice adjustments (to increase representation among groups that are traditionally under-represented). 

We’ve also made DEI more central to our data collection, research, and programmatic activities. So in 2022 we launched the Gender Equity in Development program area—spearheaded by Katherine Nolan (Research Scientist), Rachel Sayers (Research Scientist), and Jessica Wells (Research Scientist). We consider this to be a step in the right direction in that it has given staff who want to advance the DEI agenda an opportunity to do so as part of their daily work.

Gender Equity in Development is the most recent of several organizational program areas that came into existence because of the intellectual curiosity and hard work of AidData staff who saw an unmet need and resolved to do something about it. To that end, as we look to the future, we want to strengthen AidData’s reputation as the place where you go when you need to tackle seemingly unsolvable problems that require data and methods which do not yet exist. We will promote an internal culture of innovation by encouraging staff to (a) carefully and continually listen to external partners and stakeholders to better understand their felt needs and pain points, which may provide inspiration for new lines of work; and (b) spend time and resources exploring how new and existing data sources, methods, and tools can be used to address unmet needs for rigorous evidence and actionable insights.

Moving forward

Over the next three years, we’ll seek to expand our organizational remit from that of an independent provider of objective data and analysis to an agenda-setter and convener that amplifies diverse and underrepresented views and serves as an advocate for expanded voice and choice among decision-makers in the Global South. 

We will more consistently draw upon our unique sources of data and analysis to speak to hot topics and live debates and place emphasis on those which can challenge conventional wisdom or otherwise address an evidentiary blind spot. Recent experience suggests that when AidData possesses evidence that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom or fills a major evidentiary gap, it can influence the public discussion and policy agenda in outsized ways. An example of this is AidData’s effort to disabuse American and European policymakers of the Chinese debt-trap narrative. In 2022, we drilled down through a case study of Uganda’s Entebbe airport and the myth that Beijing could seize it in the event of default on a China Eximbank loan. We conducted analysis and published both the policy brief and the unredacted loan contract, which together provided definitive evidence that the airport itself was not a source of collateral. We made sure this information made it to regional and international media, and to those who make and shape policy in Western capitals. Speaking into this public discussion required a certain amount of organizational agility and entrepreneurialism, as the effort did not directly support a scope of work under a grant or contract.

Our ability to achieve organizational uptake and impact ultimately depends upon policymakers and practitioners believing that our products are useful and reliable, which in turn depends upon their certainty that we collect and analyze data in a rigorous, impartial manner. All our data and methods are put in the public domain, and much of our research is submitted to leading, peer-reviewed disciplinary and interdisciplinary journals, often after having been exposed to public scrutiny through our open AidData Working Paper Series

On the policy front, we will focus more on evidence that challenges the status quo in Washington D.C. and other Western capitals, and place more organizational emphasis on the importance of balancing and navigating diverse viewpoints and preferences in the Global North and Global South. There’s a resourcing element to this too, of which we are cognizant: given that we will be living in an era of great power competition for the foreseeable future, we will work to ensure we continue to have diverse funding sources to avoid any perception that AidData is insufficiently independent.

In the meantime, we will continue to expand the ways we can share data and evidence. AidData currently has a strong digital presence, and international media regularly seek out our experts and expertise. But we realize we need to find additional ways to get information into the hands of diverse stakeholders, through more video, social media, and digestible short-form content.

We will also ramp up training and capacity-building efforts in partnership with well-established, transnational communities of practice and distribution networks to accelerate the diffusion and uptake of our data, tools, and analysis. To facilitate measurement of the effectiveness of climate-sensitive agricultural interventions, AidData’s Geospatial Tools and Impact Evaluations program area will work with and through the African Network of Agricultural Policy Research Institutes (ANAPRI). In its efforts to promote take-up of a newly-developed Credit Shopper Tool, AidData’s Chinese Development Finance program area will target finance ministry officials who negotiate foreign loan agreements, parliamentary oversight institutions that review and/or ratify foreign loan agreements, and civil society organizations that advocate for better terms and conditions in Chinese lending arrangements. Working in conjunction with William & Mary, AidData will also ramp up a program to offer in-person, hybrid and online trainings in-country on a variety of topics, with our pilot curriculum being focused on economics and data journalism.  

Our five practice areas

Our strategy will be implemented through five main research pillars (or “practice areas”). 

  • Geospatial Tools and Impact Evaluations: AidData is a recognized leader in geospatial impact evaluations (GIEs). In partnership with leading bilateral aid agencies, multilateral development banks, and philanthropic institutions, we have led a wide-ranging, decade-long, global effort to use causal inference tools and subnationally georeferenced data to measure the intended and unintended impacts of development programs. Going forward, we plan to prioritize work with an international network of social scientists, agronomists, climate scientists, data/technology providers, and funders that have a shared interest in using GIE methods and tools to evaluate climate-sensitive agriculture programs in the developing world. AidData will also remain engaged in an effort to address a major barrier to the uptake and diffusion of geospatial analysis of policies and programs: the computationally-intensive task of fusing georeferenced investment, outcome, and covariate data at comparable spatial and temporal scales. We will continue to enhance GeoQuery in response to user feedback over the next three years—for example, by introducing an increasingly diverse set of measures and geographical units of analysis. 
  • Listening to Leaders: AidData is an established market leader in fielding large-scale surveys to 100,000 government, civil society, and private sector leaders across 140 low- and middle-income countries. We capture leader perceptions on a range of topics once every three years—with the next wave of the omnibus survey going into the field during the fourth quarter of 2023—and conduct periodic snap polls to gauge leader attitudes towards special issues. AidData also triangulates information from its surveys, qualitative interviews, financial portfolio analysis, and secondary data sources to help development agencies be more responsive to partner priorities, better tailor assistance to local needs, and maximize their influence and impact with leaders in the Global South. Using this information, we plan to produce public-facing policy reports and bespoke analysis to inform decision-making within specific development partner institutions. We also plan to feed our analysis of development partner performance and leader priorities into agency-level performance and impact evaluations, portfolio and strategy reviews, as well as the work of international standard-setting bodies, such as the Multilateral Organization Performance Assessment Network (MOPAN), Paris21, and the OECD. We will advise development agencies in the Global North and policy research organizations in the Global South on how they can build stronger in-house capabilities to assess client/partner satisfaction, policy influence, and responsiveness to local needs and preferences.  
  • Gender Equity in Development: Increasing women’s economic empowerment is critical for the overall development of societies. Not only does it directly improve women’s autonomy and wellbeing, but it also creates indirect benefits through improved community engagement, child health, and education outcomes. However, in the context of traditional social norms that limit women’s role in the public sphere, understanding which policies and programs are most effective is incredibly difficult. AidData will put its proven track record in geospatial data, ML, remote sensing, and impact evaluation methods—in conjunction with deep subject matter expertise on the role of gender in development—to better measure and contextualize women’s economic empowerment. We believe that our analysis will provide greater insight into how best to increase future impacts through improved policies and programs. We will also prioritize the development of measures of outcomes that are particularly important to women and their families, including crop selection, household bargaining power, and intimate partner violence. 
  • Chinese Development Finance: AidData has worked in close coordination with an international network of researchers to construct and analyze the world’s most comprehensive and detailed dataset of Chinese loan- and grant-financed development projects in low-income and middle-income countries. Our data and analysis are now widely used by governments in the Global North and Global South, multilateral institutions, and international media outlets. Going forward, we will prioritize the pursuit of four objectives: (1) encouraging Chinese lenders and donors to voluntarily disclose detailed and comprehensive information about their overseas activities; (2) helping low- and middle-income countries more effectively vet incoming financing proposals from China and negotiate more favorable contractual terms and conditions; (3) increasing the responsiveness of Chinese development finance institutions to local needs and preferences; and (4) helping Chinese and non-Chinese development finance institutions engage with each other in more productive ways by identifying opportunities for co-financing, coordination, and adherence to a common set of standards and safeguards. To this end, AidData will publish cutting-edge research on how China’s overseas lending and grant-giving portfolio is evolving in response to various opportunities and challenges; conduct outreach to major media outlets around the globe; organize convenings of leading policymakers and scholars; and provide custom analysis and advice to public sector decision-makers in the Global North and the Global South.
  • Foreign Policy Influence: States use a variety of non-military instruments—including money, information and media, technology, culture, and education—to advance their national interests. Yet, translating the instruments of economics or soft power into realized influence with foreign leaders or publics is neither straightforward nor quick. Policymakers in the Global South seldom have reliable intelligence at their disposal to assess risks, increase resilience, and protect their interests in the face of foreign influence. To address this area of unmet need, AidData has innovated new methods to quantify which economic and soft power tools China, Russia, and the U.S. use, with whom, for which ends, and with what effects. AidData generates actionable, comparable diagnostics to help policymakers, scholars, and practitioners monitor how foreign influence affects specific regions and sectors (e.g., energy security, civic space, media resilience) in target countries. Going forward, we will provide bespoke advice, training, data collection, and analysis to partners who wish to monitor and counter foreign influence. We will also produce public-facing dashboards, policy reports, and transparent and replicable data in order to spur additional research, education, and decision-making.

Brad Parks is the Executive Director of AidData at William & Mary. He leads a team of over 30 program evaluators, policy analysts, and media and communication professionals who work with governments and international organizations to improve the ways in which overseas investments are targeted, monitored, and evaluated. He is also a Research Professor at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute.