Saturday, December 9, 2023

How a W&M Research Lab Became a World Authority on China

AidData is a research lab at the College of William & Mary’s Global Research Institute and has been compiling data on under reported monetary flows in developing countries. (Courtesy of AidData)

WILLIAMSBURG — The name AidData might not mean much to the average person. If you were to ask someone at William & Mary (W&M), they may tell you it is a research lab at the College’s Global Research Institute. The lab takes on research projects from around the world for the betterment of society.

The lab is also responsible for a research project that was awarded $25 million over five years from United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for its continued research on underreported financial flows from first-world countries, namely China, to infrastructure projects in developing nations around the world. That is the largest grant the school has ever received for one project.

The research project in question started in 2011 when then W&M undergraduate student Austin Strange was trying to measure the environmental impacts of foreign aid on developing countries. Particularly the aid come from China. The problem he ran into is that the Chinese government is not forthcoming with those kinds of details. As a result, Strange and his associates at AidData combed through millions of records on construction projects around the world and tried to figure out the scope of China’s financial footprint in third world countries.

From what started as research for an undergraduate thesis, has since become a continuing research project with millions of dollars in funding and powered by dedicated staff of research scientists and undergraduate students.

For the AidData team, the name of the game is finding ways to collect data from an organization that does not want to share. So they track projects all over the world through the use of geospatial technology and satellite imagining.

According to the project’s senior research scientist, Ammar Malik, they track the most minute details of each project. They track the big ticket items like types of projects, the loans taken out by the host country, the interest rate China has given them. AidData also looks at line item expenditures for everyday items like tools and supplies.

“For all of these projects that we are doing, we basically track this level of detail so that people in Washington and Brussels and other places have detailed granular information,” Malik said. “That tells you exactly where the projects are.”

Having this level of information on these projects is important for several reasons. For one thing, it allows aid organizations in western powers to better know where to dedicate their time and money.

“Why this is important is because there are other sources out there, but they are not as comprehensive,” said AidData’s director of partnerships and communications Alex Wooley. “The U.S. government and the European Union and the mainstream media tend to rely on us for this information. There is not a central availability of what China is doing all rolled up and aggregated.”

Not only does AidData pour through and compile all the numbers and facts and figures, but they also put it into a narrative form so that it can be better understood.

“It’s a huge endeavor to assemble such a large data set on Chinese global finance,” said program manager Katharine Walsh. “That is really made possible by being based at William & Mary. We have this huge pool of talented and bright students to recruit to our team.”

The vetting process for the information as it is collected is rigorous to say the least.

“We have about 50 students currently working on our team and tracking through methodology” said junior program manager Kyra Solomon. “The first stage is to identify the projects, because China is not reporting these project flows. Stage two is vetting that information using open source materials and filling in key information gaps. The third step is vetting the information, to make sure what we are reporting and putting out to users is accurate and comprehensive. We really take pride in our narrative descriptions of the life cycles of these projects so that users can get an understanding of them as a whole.”

The team is currently finishing up their latest dataset on China’s global footprint over the last several years as well as how other global powers are pacing China in similar endeavors. With the new findings, AidData hopes to be able to better inform aid groups and policy makers alike.

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