University researchers study the effect of foreign aid in warring countries

Researchers at this university’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management will study the correlation between conflict and aid through a $2.5 million Minerva Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.

The three-year grant will allow for research to be conducted by collecting and geolocating data on foreign aid in developing counties experiencing or coming out of armed conflict, said government and politics professor Paul Huth, the director of CIDCM and a principal investigator for the grant.

While most of the cases studied will be in Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America will also be studied, he said.

“The overriding argument that will be evaluated through the project is that under the right conditions, this development in foreign aid can help to reduce armed conflict, but under less favorable conditions, it may actually exacerbate and contribute to a longer conflict that’s ongoing, so it’s very much an argument that aid doesn’t have unconditional effects,” Huth said.

Political, economic and social context in which aid is delivered in a country makes a large difference on whether it is beneficial or has adverse effects on that country, he said.

David Backer, assistant director at CIDCM, said the geocoding portion of the research aims to identify the specific locations where development assistance and foreign aid projects take place within those countries.

“The U.S. and other countries around the world spend considerable amounts of money on foreign assistance,” he said. “Lots of questions are being asked recently about what sort of impact this assistance has.”

From 2001 to 2010, the U.S. has delivered more than $200 billion in development assistance, according to a university press release.

“These questions about impact and effectiveness of dollars that are being spent around the world — do they matter? If so, how, when and where?” Backer said.

Students will play a role toward developing the data, he said. Starting next semester, the course “Geographies of Conflict and Development” will enroll about 40 students giving them specialized training for the project.

Students will spend time working in teams developing specific data on certain countries and continue through the summer as research assistants. By fall 2015, students will develop specific analytical products such as country profiles that look at patterns. About 100 undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows will be involved, Backer said.

“I think it’s important to emphasize that academics are sometimes challenged for not doing enough policy-relevant work that has application to the real world,” Backer said. “This work grew out of working with U.S. government agencies on things that are feeding into a media policy-making context.”

Kevin Jones, a research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and a co-principal investigator on the grant, said that CISSM’s role will be recruiting graduate students and analyzing the impact of micro-level events such as riots, protests and migration shifts that might provide early warnings or potential for conflict.

“A primary objective of the grant is to cultivate students’ interests and skills in studying the geographic patterns, trends and relationships of armed conflict and development assistance around the world,” Jones said.

Previously, Backer and Huth have worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development, where they evaluated the relationship between food aid and the continuation of armed conflicts.

“That’s what sparked a lot of our interest in the topic and the idea that much better data is needed to examine the relationship between aid and conflict,” Huth said. “We found that a shortcoming of the research was at an aggregated national level — you couldn’t really draw direct conclusions about aid and conflict because you weren’t able to pin-point where the aid in the country was located.”

Huth and Backer met with government officials from the State Department and Defense Department in October.

“They all have a lot of interest in what we’re doing,” he said. “It matters to them what our results are.”

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