International conservation donors have spent at least $3.4 billion to protect biodiversity and stem tropical deforestation in Africa since the early 1990s. Despite more than two decades of experience, however, there is little research on the effect of this aid at a region-wide scale. Numerous case studies exist, but show mixed results. Existing research is usually based on community perception or focused on short-term donor objectives rather than specific conservation outcomes, like deforestation rates. Thus, the impact of billions of dollars of conservation aid on deforestation rates remains an open question. This article uses an original dataset to analyze the effect of international conservation aid on deforestation rates in 42 African countries between 2000 and 2013. We first describe patterns of conservation aid across the continent and then assess its impact (with one to five-year lags), controlling for other factors that may also affect deforestation, including rural population, protected areas (PAs), governance, and other economic and commodity production variables. We find that conservation aid is associated with higher rates of forest loss after one- or two-year lags. A similar result holds for PA extent, suggesting possible displacement of deforestation from PAs. However, governance quality in high forest cover countries moderates these effects such that deforestation rates are reduced. Rural population is the most consistent factor associated with forest loss, confirming previous studies of this driver. Our results suggest that in heavily forested countries, development projects designed to support conservation work initially in conditions of good governance, but that conservation aid alone is insufficient to mitigate larger deforestation drivers.
Funding: The authors gratefully acknowledge research support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation through the Advancing Conservation in a Social Context Research Initiative.