How did a major college become the recipient of a $25 million grant, the single largest financial award that college ever received?
The grant was awarded by the United States Agency for International Development, (USAID) to the College of William & Mary to be the center of an international effort to track foreign aid money, increase transparency of global aid, help effectively target, monitor and evaluate foreign aid.
The late Sen, Everrett Dirksen of Illinois, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, was credited saying, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're taking real money." The same can be said about foreign aid. The money flows into foreign aid projects, not just from the United States, but 45 other donor countries and 46 multilateral donors, such as the World Bank.
In fact, the AidData database that runs from 1950 until 2012, list a million development projects in which $5.5 trillion was invested. Current projects absorb about $110-150 billion per year.
The monitoring of aid distribution and measuring its impact is a huge undertaking. It will involve a global network of scientist, economists, statisticians and other experts. But the inceptions of the project couldn't have been more modest.
As Michael Tierney, Hylton professor of government and co-director of the college's Institute for the Theory & Practice of International Relations put it, in an interview with the Lake Placid News and The Virginia Gazette, "This project started at the Green Leafe Cafe when the four of us, my honors thesis student Brad Parks, economist Rob Hicks, sociologist Timmons Roberts, and, I, a political scientist, encouraged Parks to turn his thesis into a book. The four of us sketched the outline of the book on the back of a napkin."
In 2003, Parks, Tierney's honor thesis student, was interested in studying the environmental impact of developmental assistance. He discovered that there were some fundamental problems with data that scholars had been using. A lot a data was missing or projects were mis-categorized. In one instance, a donor provided money to cut down the rain forest, while the other to protect bio-diversity and rope off the rain forest. But in the official dataset, the two projects had the same sector code forestry.
"We decided to fix that," Tierney said. "It seems crazy in retrospect, but we decided to gather the missing data and re-code each of the half a million projects by hand. This required a huge amount of smart student labor. We learned a lot in that process. The book that we originally thought would 'write itself, "Greening Aid?: Understanding the Environmental Impact of Development Assistance," was published in 2008 by Oxford University Press."
Since then the data gathered by the AidData research team has been used in many books and journal articles in the fields of political science, geography, economics, sociology and international relations.
Although the original database was not very useful for aid coordination or targeting, it lead to conversations with staff members at the World Bank, USAID and other development agencies. Then in 2007/2008 there was breakthrough. The Gates Foundation was getting into the business of funding foreign aid and development projects. They wanted to know what factors made aid projects more effective.
"Our interactions with foundations moved us from an exclusively academic project to one that was also focused on aid transparency and accountability," Tierney said. "It turns out that if people know where their tax dollars are going, it is much more likely that these expenditures will be effective. If aid beneficiaries know what a donor has promised, then they are more likely demand results from their own government or from those who are implementing an aid program."
The next chapter in the work of the William & Mary based project, in partnership with other research teams, is the development of sub-national geo-spatial data. Policymakers and citizens will be able to see in an instant, looking at a map, whether anti-poverty aid is going to the most impoverished parts of a country or whether educational aid is going to geographic areas where literacy is lowest.
"Within the academic/research community our work over the past decade has been well received," Tierney noted. "But governments and international organizations are more skeptical that a student-faculty research project should be the source of data that they use in their policy work. But if you provide value and can show that you are doing high quality work, then eventually even the skeptics come around."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.