Young minds, global insights: The student experience on AidData’s TUFF Team

Over 130 student research assistants contributed to our latest dataset and report on China’s development finance program.

December 21, 2023
Fei Wang, Bradley C. Parks, Ammar A. Malik
Prestin Tran ‘26, a student Research Assistant on AidData’s Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) team, displays his research poster at the Global Research Institute Open House. Photo by Kyra Solomon for AidData, all rights reserved.

Prestin Tran ‘26, a student Research Assistant on AidData’s Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) team, displays his research poster at the Global Research Institute Open House. Photo by Kyra Solomon for AidData, all rights reserved.  

This fall, on the tenth anniversary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, AidData, a research lab at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute, published a flagship report—Belt and Road Reboot—that examines the evolving nature, scale, and composition of China’s overseas development finance portfolio. The report also evaluates Beijing’s response to various challenges it has faced in delivering the Belt and Road Initiative. 

“The biggest change is that the era of cheap money flowing from China to developing countries is over. China is now the largest official debt collector in the world,” said Dr. Ammar A. Malik, a co-author of the report who also leads AidData’s Chinese Development Finance Program

To capture this transition, AidData drew upon a substantially updated version of its Global Chinese Development Finance (GCDF) dataset, which covers 20,985 projects in 165 developing countries financed with grants and loans worth $1.34 trillion between 2000 and 2021. It is the world's most comprehensive and detailed dataset on Chinese grant- and loan-financed development projects in low-income and middle-income countries. The 3.0 version of the dataset and updated version of the underlying Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) methodology was released alongside the Belt and Road Reboot report on November 6th, 2023.

With support and supervision from AidData’s full-time faculty and professional staff, the 3.0 dataset was assembled by 130 undergraduate and graduate research assistants (RAs) at William & Mary. They triangulated information from more than 147,000 sources—including unredacted loan and grant agreements, escrow account agreements, rescheduling agreements, deeds of security, share pledge agreements, commercial contracts, and forensic audits—in 12 different languages. Each of these RAs can attest that the 3.0 version of the GCDF dataset represents more than an incremental improvement over the 2.0 version. Its uniquely comprehensive scope and unprecedented granularity has dramatically expanded the “art of the possible” for researchers, policymakers, and journalists seeking empirical answers to questions about China’s overseas development program during the “BRI 2.0” era. 

Generating new knowledge

As they built the GCDF 3.0 dataset, which covers the peak pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, AidData’s team of RAs encountered a new challenge: donations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020 and 2021, the Chinese government and state-owned entities began providing in-kind donations of supplies to developing countries to prevent or mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Although the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, masks, and vaccine doses is often disclosed by official sources and covered by local and international media outlets, the monetary values of such donations are rarely reported.

Disregarding the monetary values of these flows (which almost always qualify as Official Development Assistance (ODA) under OECD measurement criteria) would have effectively hidden a major change in the nature of China’s foreign aid program during the early years of the pandemic. It also would have led to a major undercount of contributions to the global pandemic response. In order to estimate the monetary values of Beijing’s COVID-19-related donations, AidData RAs identified average unit prices for fourteen commonly-donated supplies—with the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Emergency Global Supply Chain System (COVID-19) catalogue—and multiplied the relevant unit prices by the total number of donated units to estimate transaction amounts. 

According to Prestin Tran ‘26, a student RA on the TUFF team majoring in international relations, “COVID-19 donation tracking allowed us to derive credible estimates of the monetary values of tangible contributions like masks and ventilators.”

In Belt and Road Reboot, AidData also investigated the implementation risks associated with Chinese development projects—in particular, those related to the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) aspects of infrastructure projects. Dory Gilmer ‘23, a recent W&M graduate who majored in public policy and a Management RA on the TUFF team, points out that the 3.0 version of the GCDF dataset not only identifies project implementation risks on a case-by-case basis, but also reveals mitigation measures taken by Chinese financiers, implementation partners, and host country governments. “This has added a whole new layer of detail to our project records and paved the way for new types of analysis of China’s overseas infrastructure program,” said Gilmer. 

Kelly Shinners ‘25, a Senior RA on the TUFF team who has worked on over 250 loan and grant records in the 3.0 dataset, said that her involvement in the construction of the dataset “helped me to connect each financial transfer to the people and regions they impact.”

Fostering growth

The TUFF RA team comprises students with a wide array of academic majors, research interests, and cultural and linguistic backgrounds. While the primary focus of the team revolves around the collection of Chinese development finance data, students are encouraged to explore their unique interests and passions.

Gilmer, who joined the TUFF team in the summer of 2022, has always been drawn to the social dimensions of international development. Her involvement the data collection process for Chapter 3 of the Belt and Road Reboot report, which examines ESG risks and risk mitigation efforts associated with Chinese infrastructure projects, led to new discoveries about how large-scale infrastructure projects can affect local residents—through, among other things, forced displacement, livelihood endangerment, and biodiversity loss. She said that “TUFF [has] opened my eyes to the critical role that project financing plays, and my passion for international development has grown significantly since joining this team.” 

Several RAs are motivated by their interests in specific countries and regions. Shinners, who is majoring in international relations, has a special interest in African politics. “Through my involvement in the TUFF team, I've been able to work on many projects specifically related to countries like Niger and Mozambique, and I’ve learned about how the deficiencies of host government institutions can create increased risks from infrastructure projects to beneficiary populations,” said Shinners. Similarly, Riley Companion ‘25 is interested in Francophone countries and reported that his work with the TUFF team has not only provided “a great deal of insight into the field of international development, but also allowed me to practice my French language skills while learning more about all the aspects of Chinese development projects in French-speaking countries.” 

TUFF student RAs have diverse professional interests in fields related to international development, public policy, and economics. But they all recognize that the training and experience of working as a TUFF RA will better equip them for their future careers. Tran, who is majoring in international relations with a minor in business analytics, sees the TUFF team as the perfect intersection of various disciplines. 

The team’s emphasis on analytics and data collection equips students like Tran to enable evidence-based public decision-making on the growing strategic competition between the US and China. “One path I can see myself pursuing is that of a foreign policy analyst,” he said, and “using statistical modeling tools to predict the future direction of foreign policy.” 

Reflecting on how his experience with the TUFF team has enriched his professional journey, Tran noted that “I have recently joined The Monitor Journal of International Relations at W&M as an associate editor, because the topic of Chinese financing is incredibly valuable, especially when paired with substantive research experience.”

Acquiring new skills

By actively contributing to a dataset that is widely used by development and foreign policymakers, TUFF RAs also gain research skills that are difficult to acquire in the classroom. According to Collin Absher ‘24, a Chinese studies major, “navigating extensive databases felt daunting before, but now I can efficiently pinpoint the exact information I need in a matter of minutes.” Similarly, Companion reported that he has honed his ability to extract crucial information from sources, a skill that has had broader academic benefits. “Just within the first few weeks of the fall 2023 semester, I saw remarkable improvements in my ability to parse through readings for my classes and distill the main ideas,” he said.

Beyond data collection skills, RAs on the TUFF team gain experiences that help them build soft skills and subject matter expertise. Shinners particularly enjoys the collaborative and investigative side of the team. “I’ve developed skills in time management, teamwork, rigorous online research, and communication. Most importantly, I've accumulated a great amount of background knowledge with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative that I've been able to use in my classes and conversations,” she said. Gilmer mentioned that the best skill she gained is “the understanding of collaborative research and project management.” Elaborating on this point, she explained that “I am now able to work independently on various workstreams, often simultaneously, while also working as part of a team. That duality is vital in the professional world, and I am grateful to have that experience from TUFF.” 

Building meaningful connections

One of the unique benefits of being a TUFF RA is the opportunity to forge meaningful connections with a group of fellow students who share similar interests and possess unique skills. Gilmer highlighted the diversity of educational backgrounds within the TUFF team and the remarkable interdisciplinary collaboration it fosters. “Whether you major in international relations, government, history, or a STEM field,” she said, “the TUFF team will benefit from your knowledge.”

While AidData RAs excel in data collection, their contributions extend beyond the confines of spreadsheets on computer screens. Through outreach opportunities and team events, they establish meaningful connections not only with their teammates but also with a broader network of student researchers at W&M’s Global Research Institute. “What I have enjoyed, and am thoroughly grateful for, is the opportunity to engage with others about our research,” said Tran. “For example, at the GRI Open House, I had a chance to share the work I did for one of the summer projects, which was tracking receiving and accountable agencies. I was able to meet others not just from the GRI but also university faculty and explain the significance of this research.”

“We are all quirky and nerdy in our own ways, which makes it such a fruitful space for research,” said Absher. “If you have an interest related to the work we do at TUFF, you are always encouraged to explore it!”

Fei Wang is a Junior Program Manager at AidData.

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.

Dr. Ammar A. Malik is Senior Research Scientist at AidData, where he leads the Chinese Development Finance Program. His team develops pioneering methods, such as the Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) methodology, to track and analyze underreported financial flows from non-traditional donors to developing countries.