Since its inception, foreign aid has been seen as a tool for winning the “hearts and minds” of people in far-away countries. In attempting to address terrorism, where it is difficult to identify who the enemy might be, governments need to utilize various methods for reducing the likelihood that individuals will become radicalized and seek to attack Western targets. In addition, improving sentiments toward the West among the population of countries where nascent anti-Western movements exist might limit the number of people willing to condone or ignore terrorism.
Our research in Bangladesh, a majority-Muslim country that has seen a recent wave of anti-Western attacks, including Friday’s hostage situation that resulted in the deaths of 20 people and six gunmen, explores whether telling people about foreign aid can play a role in cultivating more positive attitudes toward the West.
What is the purpose of foreign aid?
One goal is to change public opinion in aid-receiving countries. A mission of U.S. foreign assistance is to improve the image of the United States abroad. Since the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the United States has required all overseas aid projects to be marked as American in origin. The main aid-giving institution in the United States, the U.S. Agency for International Development, emphasizes how it has been referred to as “America’s good-news story.”
USAID hopes to change the opinions of people in developing countries through this good-news story. The theory is that people in developing countries seeing the United States, through USAID, sponsoring schools, health clinics, road construction and other local development interventions will develop more positive attitudes about the United States.
Because of this, foreign-funded development interventions in poor countries are often branded with aid agency logos or national flags. USAID brands its projects in Bangladesh with the official agency logo and the phrase “From the American People” written in the national language Bangla.
Does information about foreign aid improve people’s opinions about the United States?
Despite its commitment to branding its development projects, USAID has not released any systematic evaluations of the effectiveness of this policy for changing public opinion in aid-receiving countries.
With Bangladeshi economist Minhaj Mahmud, we set out to test whether people in Bangladesh exposed to information about U.S. foreign aid express more positive opinions about the United States. The research is published in the AidData Working Paper series.
We surveyed over 2,000 Bangladeshi citizens across 53 of the 64 districts of Bangladesh. Each of our respondents watched a one-minute video about the Smiling Sun Health Clinics, a nationwide network of health clinics partially funded by the United States through USAID. For about half of our respondents, we did not give them the information that the United States provides funding for the clinics, whereas we directly told the other half about the history of U.S. funding.
Amid a series of other questions, we asked respondents about their perceptions of U.S. influence on Bangladesh. Does the United States have a large or a small influence on Bangladesh? Is that influence good or bad?
In general, we find that Bangladeshis overall have a quite positive perception of the United States. Among respondents who did not explicitly hear about U.S. funding, 84 percent say that the United States has a large and positive influence on Bangladesh.
Nonetheless, learning about U.S. funding of development projects additionally increases the proportion of people who say that the U.S. influence on Bangladesh is positive. Both the number of people who say that the United States has only a small effect on Bangladesh and the number of people who say that the United States has a negative effect on Bangladesh decrease. In other words, our initial results support the theory that aid can be a useful foreign policy tool when it comes to changing public opinion.
It is not clear, however, how deep the attitudinal changes go. When we ask people for their opinions on whether Bangladesh should trade more with the United States or how they would feel about Bangladeshi troops being under a U.S. commander in a United Nations peacekeeping operation, we see no differences in the responses for the group who learned about aid as compared to the group who did not.
Does information about foreign aid change opinions among people hostile to the United States?
If we think that foreign aid might be able to change opinions of those who might seek to do the United States harm, then we are most interested in the effects of information about U.S. foreign aid on those people who are most hostile to the United States.
To explore this question, we created a profile of a “typical” anti-American Bangladeshi based on responses to questions about the United States in two other surveys run in Bangladesh. This profile is based on age, gender, income, and education. We identify about 240 people among our survey respondents who fit this profile.
We find that this group is indeed more anti-American when not exposed to information about U.S. foreign assistance.
When we give information about foreign aid to this group of plausibly anti-American respondents, we find that the positive change in opinion toward the United States is even larger than that which we found among the general population. Some people who otherwise would have said that the United States has a large, negative influence on Bangladesh dramatically change their opinion in the face of information about U.S. foreign assistance
Can information about foreign aid stop anti-Western attacks in Bangladesh?
The recent wave of Islamic fundamentalist attacks in Bangladesh has targeted secular bloggers and academics, foreign aid workers, members of religious minorities, and with Friday’s restaurant attack, foreigners in general. More than 50 people have died. Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have been quick to claim responsibility for these assaults, although the government denies that either group has a presence in the country.
Ultimately, these anti-Western attacks in Bangladesh are being carried out by a small group of radicalized individuals. Information about foreign aid is unlikely to change the opinions of all such individuals in Bangladesh or in other countries with nascent jihadist movements.
Our research, however, shows that learning about foreign aid might change the opinions of people who tacitly support radical Islamic groups. If this is the case, then “America’s good-news story” can in fact help to protect Western interests and the lives of those linked to the West in Bangladesh and elsewhere.
Simone Dietrich is a senior lecturer of government at the University of Essex and the director of ESSEXLab. Matthew S. Winters is an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois.