George Mason Law School

PLAID tracks foreign aid

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February 12, 2010

2:43 AM

In 2003, the College of William and Mary joined with Brigham Young University to create an interdisciplinary joint initiative called Project-Level Aid, which centers on creating a web-accessible database to catalogue financial aid given to developing nations. The database monitors its effectiveness and how external factors like the environment-impact aid, and the group publishes its findings for public and government use.

“One of the main questions we’re trying to answer is, ‘Is aid effective?,’” Michael Tierney, government professor and PLAID leader, said. “‘Does it achieve the purposes for which it is given?’ In order to answer that, you need a database that has more of the foreign aid projects in the world, and one that is more accurate in terms of the type of aid that is given … We think we have that.”

PLAID is currently the largest development finance database in the world, with over 837,000 projects worth an estimated total of $4 trillion.

Tierney said that the database would also enable donor nations to contact one another.

“They can use the information in the database to help coordinate their activities,” he said. “If you’re doing a water project in Tanzania, it might help you to know who else in Tanzania is doing a water project.”

PLAID is led by Tierney, economics professor Robert Hicks and sociology professor J. Timmons Roberts, and is funded by large organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and by smaller private contributors. Brad Parks, a researcher with the College’s international relations department, is also involved.

Students at the College also take part in projects such as contacting government officials and compiling data too complicated to be arranged by computers.

PLAID catalogues large-and small-scale financial aid projects since 1970 and provides daily updates. The database has already collected previously unpublished data from 19 countries, and has identified at least 30 more.

Data on large donors like the United States, France and the United Kingdom is collected from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Researchers led by Jonathan Chan ’09 also contact donor countries that traditionally do not report the aid they are giving.

“My job is to contact relevant officials in the government, like their ministry of foreign affairs, and explain what we’re doing here,” he said. “We explain the benefits of reducing global poverty … We also emphasize the benefit to them in that it is good publicity.”

Chan said that the process is intensive and often lengthy.

“It can be very intimidating,” he said. “And it can take months to actually get the data.”

Last year PLAID partnered with Development Gateway, a foundation that studies international development, to create AIDdata, an internet program that combines information from the PLAID database with web-based tools that can be used to track and analyze information.

This system simplifies the process of interpreting development finance by breaking it down into smaller categories, by deciding which nations receive aid and how much. It also seeks to make this information more understandable by providing “data visualization tools,” which convert raw information into interactive maps, to making tracking financial aid patterns easier.

The project’s primary goal is to enable government officials and policy writers to make more informed decisions regarding the allocation of funds, thereby improving the overall effectiveness of the financial aid system.

The information will be available to everyone from individuals to national governments.

AIDdata will be officially launched at the Aid Transparency and Development Finance Conference at Oxford University in March.

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