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The Politics of Private Foreign Aid: Humanitarian Principles, Economic Development Objectives, and Organizational Interests in NGO Private Aid Allocation

  • Tim Büthe (a1), Solomon Major (a2) and André de Mello e Souza (a3)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 10 October 2012

A large and increasing share of international humanitarian and development aid is raised from nongovernmental sources, allocated by transnational NGOs. We know little about this private foreign aid, not even how it is distributed across recipient countries, much less what explains the allocation. This article presents an original data set, based on detailed financial records from most of the major U.S.-based humanitarian and development NGOs, which allows us for the first time to map and analyze the allocation of U.S. private aid. We find no support for the common claim that aid NGOs systematically prioritize their organizational self-interest when they allocate private aid, and we find only limited support for the hypothesis that expected aid effectiveness drives aid allocation. By contrast, we find strong support for the argument that the deeply rooted humanitarian discourse within and among aid NGOs drives their aid allocation, consistent with a view of aid NGOs as principled actors and constructivist theories of international relations. Recipients' humanitarian need is substantively and statistically the most significant determinant of U.S. private aid allocation (beyond a regional effect in favor of Latin American countries). Materialist concerns do not crowd out ethical norms among these NGOs.

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