Last fall, AidData and USAID's Global Development Lab made available up to US$2 million in funding for cutting edge research through a competitive solicitation process. We sought to find the best new ideas to use subnational development finance data to solve policy relevant research questions. The response was overwhelming: we received 142 expressions of interest and 46 full applications. In this post we’re excited to tell you more about 9 awardees that will begin work this summer, and provide a preview of how this cohort of research projects will advance our mission to make development finance data more accessible and actionable.

AidData’s research consortium brings the ivory tower to the real world

With high-quality aid information and rigorous scientific methods, AidData seeks to generate new insights on how to make public and private sources of development funding more transparent, accountable, and effective. From our origins as a student-faculty research project in 2003 to the present day, AidData has a rich tradition of collaboration with leading scholars to support break-through research in a variety of fields, such as: conflict mitigation, democracy and governance, economic growth, environment and climate change, global health, food security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

In January 2014, we launched the AidData Research Consortium (ARC), a collaborative research network comprised of over 80 scholars from 50 institutions from around the world. The ARC was founded as part of AidData’s work with the Higher Education Solutions Network, an initiative of USAID’s Global Development Lab. ARC scholars possess different domains of expertise, but share an interest in using geo-referenced data on development investments and outcome to better understand subnational aid targeting, coordination, and impact.

Pioneering a new generation of development research using geocoded data

Through a competitive solicitation process launched last fall, AidData and USAID sought to mobilize the most promising ideas to leverage an increasing amount of publicly available geo-referenced data in order to rigorously evaluate the targeting, allocation, and impact of development programs. We also sought ideas that would allow us to understand the impacts of making data on development activities and outcomes more transparent and to advance methodological frontiers of spatial analysis for development.

Final applications from 9 countries and 37 institutions were peer-reviewed by a panel of researchers, as well as by members of USAID's Global Development Lab and staff of relevant USAID country missions. Successful applications fit into one or more of the below categories:

  • Targeting & Allocation: - Projects that seek to understand how foreign aid is targeted and allocated within country
  • Effectiveness & Impact – Projects that address the effectiveness of aid in improving outcomes at a sub-national level
  • Transparency for Development – Projects that examine the impact of informational interventions and transparency initiatives related to development finance
  • Spatial Methods – Methodological innovations that utilize development finance data to improve allocation or impact evaluation strategies at the subnational level.

Disrupting the status quo: tapping today’s brightest minds to solve development challenges

The ultimate objective of this work isn’t merely to fund new research projects, but to support the creation of a stronger evidence base that policymakers and practitioners can use to solve real-world problems. In the words of former USAID Administrator Raj Shah, the Higher Education Solutions Network is the latest step in USAID's efforts to harness the best ideas from the academic and scientific community…to foster transformational progress in development. By collaborating with top universities around the world, we hope to tap today’s brightest minds and focus ingenuity on global development challenges.

These 9 projects awarded funding under the USAID-AidData RFA are consistent with this vision to improve development policy and practice by collaborating with world-class researchers. Representing the efforts of 9 institutions and 27 researchers, the winning projects cover 7 countries and a wide range of thematic areas. In the coming weeks, we will profile each of these projects in-depth. In the meantime, the table below provides a quick snapshot of the breadth and diversity of research activities that will be supported.

List of funded projects

Project Name Key Personnel / Lead and Affiliated Institutions Research Focus Country Focus
Remote Sensing Approaches to Improving Aid Targeting and Understanding Aid Effectiveness Marshall Burke and David Lobell; Stanford University The research team proposes to develop and test remote-sensing based approaches to gathering two types of aid-relevant data: data on agricultural productivity and data on household assets, with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. The work will combine new high-resolution satellite imagery with household survey data to develop algorithms to measure crop yields and key household assets remotely (i.e. from space), with the household survey data providing the “groundtruth” with which to train the algorithms. Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda
Transparency in the Distribution of Food Aid: Two Social Experiments in Indonesia Rema Hanna, Abhijit Banerjee, Ben Olken, Sudarno Sumarto, Jordan Kyle; Harvard University, MIT, National Team for the Acceleration of Poverty Reduction, SMERU, and Columbia University. Using household surveys, the research team will trace how the transparency of food aid interventions affected the functioning of the subsidized rice program. Thus, the researchers will be able to directly test whether eligible households received a bigger financial subsidy as a result of the different types of transparency interventions. Indonesia
Decentralization and Targeting of Rural Electrification in Kenya Kenneth Lee and Michael Walker; Innovations for Poverty Action What are the determinants of electrification project targeting? Is there evidence of elite capture or ethnic favoritism? Does decentralization lead to differences in targeting? How does decentralization affect the efficiency and equity of targeting decisions? Kenya
The Delivery and Spatial Distribution of Development Projects: Evidence from a USAID Governance Project in Ghana Erik Wibbels, Nahomi Ichino, and Martin Williams; Duke University, the University of Michigan, and the London School of Economics This project will produce geocoded data on local infrastructure finance activities and test whether a USAID-supported transparency and governance program affected the completion and impacts of this infrastructure. Ghana
Accountability Among Traditional and Elected Leaders: An Experiment on Transparency, Community Monitoring, and Aid Leakage in Malawi Elizabeth Carlson and Brigitte Zimmerman; The Pennsylvania State University and the Varieties of Democracy Project This pilot study will examine how monitoring by political superiors and citizens affects leakage of local development resources within local government in Malawi. Malawi
Do Aid Flows That Bypass National Governments Alter Citizen and Elite Political Engagement? Kate Baldwin and Matthew Winters; Yale University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign This pilot experiment will assess how information about where aid is flowing affect the perceptions of the relevance of different levels of government, potentially leading to different types of political behavior on the part of either citizens or elites. Uganda
Information, Transparency, and Credit Claiming in Aid Allocation and Support: A Field Experiment among Elected and Non-Elected Officials in Malawi Ryan Jablonski and Brigitte Zimmerman; London School of Economics and the Varieties of Democracy Project This pilot experiment aims to understand how locally elected officials make decisions about targeting development aid in Malawi, and how information about politics and the level of community need influence how aid is allocated. Malawi
Using Real-Time Spatial Information to Improve Accountability for Public Services: A Field Experiment Mark Buntaine and Daniel Nielson; University of California - Santa Barbara and Brigham Young University This pilot field experiment seeks to learn the effects of different reporter recruitment methods on the provision, quality, and impact of citizen monitoring of solid waste via mobile phones in Kampala, Uganda. Uganda

These 9 projects will kick off this summer, with 2 additional projects under review for a potential future start date. Stay tuned via the First Tranche for in-depth profiles of these projects and project updates.

Brad Parks is AidData’s Co-Executive Director and Ariel BenYishay is our Chief Economist. David Trichler is Director of Operations, Jessica Wells is AidData’s Research Manager and Alena Stern is the Program Manager for our activities under the USAID Higher Education Solutions Network award.