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Uganda’s elite and citizens don’t see eye to eye on foreign aid

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, US President Barak Obama, Secretary General Ban ki-Moon and Turkish President Abdullah Gül at a luncheon hosted by the Secretary General in honor of Heads of State and Government attending the 65th Session of the UN General Assembly.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, US President Barak Obama, Secretary General Ban ki-Moon and Turkish President Abdullah Gül at a luncheon for the 65th Session of the UN General Assembly.

What do the people who are on the receiving end of foreign aid think about it? It’s a relatively simple question that is not often asked.

Some new research sheds a bit of light on the question and provides some interesting questions. Ugandans were surveyed about their attitudes about foreign aid as opposed to government programs. The average citizen prefers foreign aid, while elites tend to like government programs.

“In Uganda at least, citizens overwhelming support both foreign aid and government projects, but they significantly prefer aid over government spending when expressing support and taking actions that impose personal costs,” say the research team, led by NYU’s Adam Harris. “National elites, on the other hand, consistently support government projects over foreign assistance and express greater willingness to support government programs over aid to a statistically significant degree in multiple instances.”

The results seem intuitive. Citizens worry that government programs are corrupt and that they will be used to buy political support. The research design is unable to answer exactly why citizens are more supportive of foreign aid programs over government ones. It is possible that citizens are misinformed about the effects of aid or they might see aid as a way to access the public goods they need outside of the corrupt government system.

The findings also buck the idea that elites would favor foreign aid since it benefits them and not the citizens. Harris and his team say that it should not be all that surprising that the assumption about attitudes among elites is wrong. It is possible that they can better take advantage of government spending as opposed to foreign aid spending.

Fewer answers are given than there are questions raised about assumptions on aid. Comparing attitudes about aid verses government helps to illuminate what people think in a better way than just asking if people like aid or not. Naturally, the final conclusions call for more research on the subject.

“As a first study on this question, the results reported here are very suggestive that the conventional wisdom among aid skeptics – at least with regard to how citizens perceive aid – may need re-examination,” they conclude.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]