• How to report on foreign aid for science

    Carl-Gustav Lindén


Speed read

  • Journalists should go beyond aid announcements and follow up results

  • Ask who is involved, not just who benefits — science aid should build capacity

  • Aid is important and complex: your job is to keep asking the tough questions

Carl-Gustav Lindén explains how to see beyond the dollar signs and report on what aid for science is achieving.

Much of the work of journalists covering science in developing countries involves reporting on projects related to development aid. You might write about the announcement of a research centre established with a donor country’s money, or a science-related project funded by one of the large international agencies into which higher-income nations pool contributions.

Journalists often cover new aid-funded projects as news stories, but it’s much more challenging to follow up what happens to aid. Where does it go? Does it achieve what it set out to? And does it make a tangible difference to the lives of local people?

This is where journalists should come to the fore, reporting on aid’s effectiveness and whether it achieves what both the donors and recipients aimed.  
In this guide I will explain how aid can support science and suggest some ways that journalists can report on aid and evaluate its effectiveness.

Different forms of aid

Development is a complicated long-term process [1], of which aid is just one component (SciDev.Net’s Spotlight on science and NGOs gives some background on this). It is a complex journalistic subject for many reasons, from the political context in which aid is given to recipient countries’ differing capacities to use resources.

The bulk of aid consists of taxpayers’ money. In 2013, foreign aid for development hit a record high in absolute terms. [2] But there are different types of aid. It can be multilateral (channelled through international organisations, mainly the big UN agencies such as the World Bank), bilateral (country to country), or it can be delivered by NGOs, foundations, churches and other organisations. It may go to emergency and humanitarian operations; specific projects, sectors or programmes; towards democracy support for opposition and media during elections; and towards technical assistance or capacity building such as training and education. Or it may go into a national budget or some specific part of it, channelled as cash transfers for supporting poor families, and towards debt relief.

“Editors may need to be convinced that there is more than failure and corruption to aid. It is probably often easiest to ‘sell’ an aid story related to a scandal, but serious journalists need to keep a balance.”

Carl-Gustav Lindén

When it comes to science, the primary focus is to build in-country capacity for research and innovation that contributes to economic growth, jobs and welfare.

Since conventional lab-based research and development may not suit the poorest countries if infrastructure or high-skilled people are in short supply, many ‘aid for science’ projects focus instead on learning and knowledge diffusion activities. These can be fellowships, training, knowledge networks, creating spaces for collaboration, ensuring that new technologies are accessible, and translating basic research into innovation. [3,4,5]

An example of this approach is the new British Newton Fund, which will develop science and innovation partnerships between poor countries and international organisations. [6] The Gates Foundation recently also launched an initiative that supports research on delivering health interventions. [7]

It is important to remember that aid is quite small compared with other financial flows into a recipient country, such as private investment (which aid may catalyse) or overseas workers sending money back home.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that while an aid budget may seem huge, in most countries yearly aid per capita is no more than 25 or 30 US dollars — equivalent to a few cases of soft drinks.

Different types of stories

Is development aid effective? It’s a question that sparks heated debate. But research tells us that it works pretty well in general, and most of the time. [8]

There are obvious successes. One recent example is Vietnam: a poor country that for decades has received massive assistance and is now ready to ‘graduate’ from low-income to middle-income status. A study from a European think tank [9] shows in detail how reforms in governance and aid have done the trick. Yet aid does sometimes fail, because of corruption or ill-designed projects, and these failures tend to receive most of the publicity.

As a journalist, you must keep a critical mind-set. The question of overall aid efficiency cannot be answered with a simple yes or a no, though you may be able to evaluate a single small project’s success. [10] Aid for science is especially difficult to evaluate because it is difficult to single out its effects.

Stories about aid for science typically deal with knowledge-based development initiatives promoted as new and innovative, such as the Millennium Village Project (MVP), a brain child of the US economist Jeffrey Sachs.

One type of story about aid is critiquing an aid project’s methods. The Economist magazine and The Guardian, a UK national newspaper, have done a good job at looking past the hype of the MVP. [11,12] They have highlighted that because there is no comparison group of unsupported villages, the evidence of MVP’s impact is weak or non-existent. When you cover a specific project like this you should look at its plans to evaluate success.

Stories can also be about the benefits of new donor-funded research facilities, or capacity-building efforts such as educational programmes. A successful example of aid for science is the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) think tank based in Nairobi, Kenya. I chose to cover the AERC by focusing on the ambitions and struggle of an individual researcher — Wisdom Akpalu from Ghana. [13]

Another good example of how aid, research and innovation can make a difference is Jaipur Foot, an Indian non-profit organisation that has provided free prosthetic legs to 1.4 million poor people in the past 30 years. I recently covered Jaipur Foot for a Finnish magazine [14] and Forbes India did a well-researched story on the success and challenges facing the foundation. [15]

Jaipur Foot has received financial support from charities, donor agencies and the Indian government, and assistance with R&D from Indian space scientists and researchers at Stanford University. The project is the result of one man’s struggle. Forbes India asks the crucial question: what will happen when DR Mehta, the organisation’s 76-year-old patron, can no longer continue?

Holding aid to account

SciDev.Net has previously published a guide on what it takes to be an investigative science journalist. Those skills will be useful when looking at donor-supported science projects. Journalists need to ask crucial questions: where is the money coming from and are there any motives behind it other than altruism?

There are other, more specific, questions you should also ask. You can probe the likely long-term impact of an aid-funded science project by asking about who is involved. How many local researchers are there? What are their roles? What they will learn and how is quality measured and ensured? How will local research networks gain? Donors tend to prefer to talk about who is affected by research rather than who is involved, and it is important to keep this in mind.

You might also ask how donors plan to ensure that there is no brain drain of local researchers. Aid programmes might, for instance, be trying to create local professional opportunities or better working conditions by providing research funds, technical support and higher salaries.

You should also remember to ask how a research project’s long term impact will be sustained financially. What will happen when donor support ends?

You may be wondering who will give answers to these questions. There are plenty of sources within aid, policy and science circles — including researchers, consultants or contractors working for funders. It helps to ‘map’ key players in the aid system and stay in touch with them regularly. Not only do such sources give stories a human touch, they may also tip you off about successes and failures, or new projects in the pipeline.

Data can also be a source (see SciDev.Net’s data journalism practical guide). Places to search for aid-related information include Publishwhatyoufund, OpenAid, the OpenAid Partnership, AidWatch by Concord Europe, AidData, and Aidinfo. Official statistics can be found on the OECD aid site or on donors’ own websites.

PR motives

Bear in mind that donors often promote successful aid stories to the media: they want more talk about success than failure. So think about why a press release has been produced, or why a PR person calls. Is there a controversy going on, or is the government about to make decisions on the subject? Is the research funder campaigning for more resources, and so needs publicity?

The coverage in this report from Columbia Journalism Review suggests several questions you could ask. [15] For example, is this really new information? Who is actually involved in the research? Is it in fact aid or is it investment? Are there conflicts of interest? [16,17] For instance, is aided-funded health research locally useful, or simply what donors perceive to be useful? Since development aid is supposed to generate economic growth, jobs and welfare, it is crucial to follow this up with donors.

You should also have a realistic idea of what aid might be able to achieve. How much development would a certain amount of aid buy? Talk to people about what might be reasonable returns on ‘investment’ for projects and programmes. On average, the rate of return on aid has been 7.3 per cent a year since the mid-1970s, [18] so any deviance from this would need to be explained.

Where a science project was designed to improve public policy, you should ask how this has been achieved, and uncover any political and cultural constraints. [19] One recent example is Uganda’s anti-gay law and its damaging consequences for HIV-research as a result of donor aid being put on hold.

Selling aid stories

One of the biggest challenges you might face is convincing your editors that foreign aid should be high on the agenda.
You can pitch aid stories by linking them to science narratives around high-profile topics such as climate change or food production. Climate change is one the most common areas of focus for aid donors, through mitigation and adaptation assistance.
Try proposing to produce an in-depth feature instead of chasing hard news: in a feature you can focus on an individual’s story to recreate the daily drama of aid. Or link your story to a news event such as a ‘world day’, to global summits or other pegs.
Editors may need to be convinced that there is more than failure and corruption to aid. It is probably often easiest to ‘sell’ an aid story related to a scandal, but serious journalists need to keep a balance.
Foreign aid is a subject that should stay in the mainstream media for good reason: donors provide crucial support for many poor countries with their taxpayers’ money. [20] And poor countries need good journalists to take a critical look at the difficult issues.
Carl-Gustav Lindén is a freelance communications specialist based in Finland. He can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter as @Gusse