Research center poised to transform the way foreign assistance is targeted, monitored and evaluated
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has chosen William & Mary to lead a five-year, $25 million award to create the AidData Center for Development Policy, a research center that will create data and tools to enable the global development community to more effectively target, coordinate, deliver, and evaluate foreign aid.
The award, the largest single award in W&M history, is a part of USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network program, which according to the USAID website, aims to establish institutional partnerships that will create and leverage a virtual network of leading experts who will help USAID solve distinct global development challenges.
“I am very proud of William & Mary’s leadership in this important international endeavor,” said W&M Chancellor and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ’65. "AidData is fundamentally improving the way the U.S. development and defense communities track the distribution and impact of their overseas investments. The AidData Center for Development Policy at William & Mary will play a key role in ensuring that limited foreign assistance resources are put to more effective use.”
AidData was founded in 2009 as a collaborative initiative between William & Mary, Brigham Young University, and Development Gateway and has established itself as a global leader in the provision of reliable, timely and detailed information about foreign assistance projects.
Today, it is recognized as the largest public access database on project-level development finance in the world, tracking more than $5.5 trillion and one million development projects from 91 donor agencies.
The new AidData Center for Development Policy, headquartered at William & Mary's Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations in Williamsburg, Virginia, is a joint venture between William & Mary, Development Gateway, Brigham Young University (BYU), the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin), and ESRI, a GIS technology company.
“This is truly great news, a game changer,” said William & Mary President Taylor Reveley. “Our faculty is leading the way in aid policy, practice, and research among U.S. universities. Mike Tierney, Brad Parks and their interdisciplinary team of faculty, staff, and students have helped position the AidData initiative, and the university, at the forefront of the aid transparency movement and the global development research community.”
Leading the new Center from W&M will be Michael Tierney, co-director of the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations, and Brad Parks, the co-executive director of AidData. They conceived the project to build the Project-Level Aid Database (PLAID), AidData’s precursor, as a student-faculty research project in 2003. Tierney and Parks also led the effort that resulted in the USAID award.
Each year, governments and international organizations provide approximately $160 billion to finance development projects in the world's poorest countries. A recent movement to increase aid transparency has made vast amounts of foreign aid data available to the public. However, the data are scattered, buried in complex and unstandardized reporting systems and obscured in spreadsheets that require great effort and technical skill to interpret.
The AidData Center for Development Policy will use innovative geo-referencing technologies to map foreign aid activities at the sub-national level. These maps, which contain extraordinary amounts of easy to understand data, represent one important step toward the democratization of aid information. They have also revealed surprising trends that have changed the way that development agencies and governments are thinking about foreign aid.
Parks believes that the creation of the AidData Center for Development Policy will “fundamentally change the way that foreign assistance is targeted, monitored, and evaluated.”
“The Center will build a global network of geographers, health scientists, economists, political scientists, computer scientists, and statisticians who are committed to helping USAID and other development agencies reduce the cost and increase the impact of their aid programs,” Parks said. “The Center will also empower the intended beneficiaries of aid with the information needed to hold their own governments and development agencies accountable for results.”
Other Center initiatives include the creation of opportunities for entrepreneurs, development practitioners, scientists, and non-profits to innovate with geocoded aid information and the continued development of open source software and web-based tools that allow anyone to visualize, overlay, correlate, and analyze diverse data sources.
According to Tierney, this type of transparency is vital to the future of development aid.
"U.S. citizens are happy to invest some of their taxpayer dollars in efforts to combat disease, poverty, and environmental degradation," Tierney said. "They are not happy to see their money spent to prop up corrupt governments. Making aid transparent reduces opportunities for waste and corruption."
Tierney believes the Center will not only have a large impact in the world of development but will help William & Mary realize some of its strategic objectives in promoting interdisciplinary collaborations, student-faculty research, and internationalization. “In addition to providing better data and evidence to policymakers who make decisions with far-reaching consequences, this award will dramatically increase our capacity to engage students and faculty in cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research geared towards solving real world problems. We are already reaching beyond the usual suspects in the Economics and Government Departments in order to engage our colleagues in other departments and programs. We have a great deal to learn from each other.”