Recipients of PSC Small Grant Awards

The Effects of Foreign Aid on Environmental Outcomes and Attitudes in Malawi

Jeffrey Swindle

Jeffrey Swindle

Mixed findings have led to an endless debate about whether foreign aid is helpful or harmful for  recipient countries (e.g. Easterly 2006; Sachs 2005). Amidst this controversy, AidData, a  comprehensive database of worldwide foreign aid, was publically released in 2011. AidData  provides researchers with the ability to assess the impact of foreign aid around the world (Tierney et al. 2011). 

In hopes of better understanding the effects of aid within its own boundaries, the government of  Malawi partnered with AidData to geographically tag all foreign aid projects since the country’s  independence in 1965. While foreign aid has come to the northern, central, and southern regions  of Malawi, there is reason to suspect that its effect has varied by location. Population density and  

economic activity have historically been the highest in the south, as has mining and large-scale  agricultural enterprise. The central region contains several unfinished, government-planned cities  from the 1970s-90s, and tourism is highest in this area of the country. The north has been and  remains less densely populated and is even more dependent on the land than the southern or  central regions. The unique characteristics of each region likely affect the impact of foreign aid.  

Research on global social change has demonstrated that care for the environment and population  control are cultural values that are becoming increasingly important around the world, as  evidenced by the rapid proliferation of new international policies and organizations regarding  environmental sustainability and population control (Barrett and Frank 1999; Frank et al. 2000;  Meyer et al. 1997; Thornton 2005). The Malawian government has similarly expressed concern  about the natural environment and population size. Climate change is a major problem in Malawi  and large swaths of land have become unproductive in recent decades. A rising population fuels  further environmental degradation as forests are cut down for firewood and new farming lands.  The government is convinced that any changes in environmental and demographic outcomes will  only be possible if they are linked with attitudinal changes among Malawians.  

Research Questions and Hypotheses 

According to AidData, foreign aid in Malawi between the years 1965 and 2011 totaled $25.3  billion in U.S. dollars. Aid allocated for projects focused on environmental and population related issues totaled $176.8 million and $2 billion, respectively. My study looks specifically at  the effects of this aid on the following: (1) CO2 emissions; (2) deforestation; (3) Malawians’  attitudes about the environment; (4) fertility rates; (5) contraceptive use; and (6) Malawians’  attitudes about fertility; and (7) Malawians’ attitudes about contraception. I also examine  whether the effects of foreign aid on these outcomes and attitudes vary regionally.  

I hypothesize that foreign aid has a positive impact on reducing CO2 emissions and deforestation,  as well as a positive effect on Malawians’ attitudes about the importance of the environment. I  also hypothesize that foreign aid has a mild negative effect on fertility rates and desired number  of children, and a positive effect on conception use and attitudes toward contraceptive methods. I  also anticipate that the effect of foreign aid targeted specifically at these issues will be greater  than the effect of foreign aid in general. 

I also expect to see substantial variation in the effects of foreign aid across different regions of  Malawi. Given that the north is more isolated and thus less exposed to outside ideas, the impact  of aid on environmental and demographic attitudes is likely greater in this region than it is in the  central or southern regions. That being said, I also anticipate that foreign aid has had far less of  an impact on objective changes in the north because the rural, agrarian lifestyle of the people  there befits a large family model, which is in turn tied to environmental degradation. I also  suspect that the effect of foreign aid on objective outcomes has been somewhat greater in the  central region than the northern or southern parts of the country because the national government  has greater control over the economy and politics of this region than it does elsewhere. 

Data and Methodology 

To test my hypotheses, I take a mixed-methods approach. Both quantitative regression analysis and qualitative fieldwork in Malawi are helpful, and these methods inform and support one  another. 

In my quantitative analyses, I employ several dependent variables. The specific environmental  outcomes I measure are CO2 emissions and deforestation. Data for these variables comes from  the World Resources Institute and the Energy Information Administration. The specific  population outcomes I measure are fertility and contraception use. Data for these variables are  taken from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS). I measure individuals’ attitudes  regarding the value of the environment, their desire for children, and views toward conception  with both the DHS and the Afrobarometer public opinion surveys. My independent variables are  related to foreign aid to Malawi between the years 1965 and 2011, and come from the AidData  database. In addition to looking at the total amount of foreign aid, I look specifically at foreign  aid coded as “General Environmental Protection” and “Population Policies/Programmes and  Reproductive Health.” In addition, the database provides geo-tags for every project within the  database, enabling me to examine regional differences. 

Due to the complexity and depth of the AidData database, it would be helpful for me to travel to  Washington D.C. (where AidData is housed) to meet with the research specialists who maintain  the database. I have been in communication with these specialists and I plan to travel to their  office for three to four days early this summer to receive personal training in using the database.  

Given the potential for regional variation in the effects of foreign aid, qualitative analysis can  help me uncover why such variation exists. So, I plan to travel to Malawi for three to four weeks  in the fall of 2014 to begin to set up interviews with key individuals involved in the largest  foreign aid projects related to the environment and population. I will need to hire two local  interviewers from the Malawian research agency ‘Invest in Knowledge,’ with whom I have been  in touch, to assist me. The purpose of these interviews with key informants will be to identify  reasons why the specific foreign aid projects in which they were involved did or did not have  major effects on environmental and population-related attitudes and outcomes. I will also meet  with community leaders who are familiar with the projects, and I will analyze newspaper articles  and government reports about the projects. These efforts will help me to better grasp local  perceptions of the projects in question. While I do not anticipate completing this qualitative  element to my study during this initial three to four week trip to Malawi, this trip will allow me  to lay the groundwork for a longer stay of three to six months in the summer and fall of 2015. 

Benefits of this Fellowship 

Receiving this fellowship would benefit me in four critical ways. First, the money provided  would allow me to travel to both Washington D.C. for special training on how to use the  AidData database, and to Malawi for the qualitative portion of my study. Second, receiving this  fellowship would give me additional ties to the School of Natural Resources and the  Environment. I anticipate participating in SNRE student working groups and engaging with the  SNRE community regularly. Third, a number of conference papers and publications will likely  result from this research. My plan is to prepare conference presentations for the annual meetings  of the Population Association of America and the American Sociological Association next year,  and then to submit two papers for publication at the end of the following year. Finally, this  fellowship would benefit me is that it would enable me to develop an in-depth understanding of  several rich databases. With this knowledge, I will be adequately prepared to further explore the  connections between population, development, and climate change in my dissertation.