News from the Department

Study Provides First Global Evidence That Foreign Aid Boosts Public Opinion

24 February, 2014

The research is gaining wide attention, including a feature on BBC News online.

Results suggest foreign aid programs are increasingly important geostrategic tool.

A new study by Australian and US researchers, including Associate Professor Ben Goldsmith from the University of Sydney,  provides the first empirical evidence using cross-national data that foreign aid can greatly improve foreign public opinion of donor countries.

The findings are based on a U.S. foreign aid program targeting HIV and AIDS – PEPFAR (the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) – that has substantially improved public perception of the United States in the more than 80 developing countries receiving the aid. But the findings have broader policy implications for an emerging international order in which major powers increasingly use foreign aid rather than militarized conflicts to sway global public opinion and pursue a range of objectives in foreign relations.

The [working paper], which has been accepted for publication in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, is available on SSRN (Social Science Research Network). The study included researchers from the University of Sydney, Dartmouth College, and the Australian National University.

The findings suggest that by doing good, a country can do well in that certain types of foreign aid under certain conditions can improve perceptions of the donor country in recipient countries. Foreign aid is often claimed to be an effective tool that states use to win hearts and minds abroad, but those claims are largely based on anecdotal evidence from disaster and conflict zones. The few empirical studies conducted have had methodological limitations and produced mixed results, with some showing at least a temporary boost in public opinion, while others show no widespread, long-lasting effect.

There are a number of reasons why foreign aid could be ineffective in influencing public opinion -- recipients may be unaware of the origins of the aid; the donor’s motivations might be seen as self-serving; the positive feelings associated with aid may be too small to shift perceptions; aid programs may fail to work; or aid may be seen as helping to prop up dysfunctional or repressive regimes.

But the new study's results suggest that in addition to its humanitarian benefits, foreign aid that meets certain criteria -- targeted at important needs, sustained over time, perceived as being effective, and highly visible -- can serve an important strategic goal for those countries that give it.