A study by Dartmouth and Australian researchers provides the first empirical evidence using data from a variety of countries 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—the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)—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 study will appear in Quarterly Journal of Political Science. A PDF of the study is available on request. The study included researchers from Dartmouth College, the University of Sydney and the Australian National University.
"By doing good, a country can do well," says co-author Yusaku Horiuchi, an associate professor and the Mitsui Chair in the Study of Japan in the Department of Government at Dartmouth. "Our findings suggest that policy debates about foreign aid programs should consider not only their efficacy in achieving direct goals, but also their value in improving the donor country's global or regional standing."
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. In addition, there are several 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.
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. But the Dartmouth-Australian study takes a new approach to the issue, applying for the first time a comparative, cross-national perspective using data from a variety of countries. The 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.
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