Opening the black box of international aid: understanding delivery actors and democratization


Donor states may delegate to other actors to deliver aid through partnerships. We ask whether some partnerships are more effective than others with democratization aid. We identify five actors, arguing that they can affect the recipient’s democracy outcomes via the fungibility of the funds. We hypothesize that organizations that have relationships of accountability and dependency to the donor are most likely to use aid for its intended purposes (least fungible), making them the most likely to see positive effects on democratization. Those that do not have these relationships may use the money for other purposes, making them the least likely to see positive effects on democratization. We test these with data from 32 OECD countries and 126 recipients from 2004 to 2018. Using the electoral indicator from the Varieties of Democracy project, we find that NGO- and IGO-delivered aid is associated with significantly larger increases in a democracy than aid delivered by corporations.

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  1. 1.

    The Black Box term is also used in: Arndt et al. (2011) and Bourguignon and Sundberg (2007).

  2. 2.

    For more on tax revenue, see also: Morrison (2009, 107).

  3. 3.

    For broader work on linkage and leverage in comparative politics, see: Levitsky and Way (2005); And for broader comparative politics arguments on international effects on democratization, see: Gleditsch and Ward (2006).

  4. 4.

    Extensive methodological insights regarding ‘effectiveness’ are described by Heiss and Kelley (2017).

  5. 5.

    Further, there is a literature on the role of international organizations and their effect on democratization or peace, but it is less relevant because it does not apply to their donor policies, but rather broader effects such as credibility of commitments to global audiences in the process of democratization (Mansfield and Pevehouse 2008; Pevehouse and Russett 2006).

  6. 6.

    See also Bader and Faust (2014).

  7. 7.

    We originally created two codings for democratization aid. The first, a "narrow" coding, only includes 21 codes under the "Government and Civil Society" category that would clearly be intended to increase democracy in the country. The "broader" coding includes 76 codes across many categorizations of aid that would intuitively benefit democracy. A full list of codes is available in Online Appendix D1 and D2 , respectively. While we only report the results of the broader coding her, the narrow coding is available in Online Appendix C9.

  8. 8.

    For example: Birchler et al. (2016).


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Dunton, C., Hasler, J. Opening the black box of international aid: understanding delivery actors and democratization. Int Polit (2021).

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  • Democracy/democratization
  • Domestic politics
  • Foreign aid
  • Political economy
  • Networks/NGOs