To effectively address globally important questions such as how to grow crops that will best serve regions affected by climate change or how to assess the environmental and economic impact of mining for transition minerals used in car batteries, policymakers need accurate data.
That’s what William & Mary’s AidData research lab is providing with support from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which recently awarded the lab two grants totaling $1.7 million. This funding continues a more than decade-long partnership between the Hewlett Foundation and AidData, which operates under the Global Research Institute, a multidisciplinary hub comprising over 60 faculty and staff and more than 200 students.
The first grant, worth $1.2 million, will fund up to four collaborations with partner organizations in Africa that expand on the types of agricultural and economic projects AidData already has underway. These focus on geospatial impact evaluations, using satellite imagery and on-the-ground interviews to find ways to improve farming outcomes and reduce poverty in Africa. The collaborations will also focus on examining Africa’s gender-related policies in urban settings and enhancing agriculture policy researchers’ ability to use geospatial tools for evaluation and analysis.
A second grant for $500,000 will enable AidData to better understand Chinese development financing in mining for transition minerals that are essential for a renewable future. Minerals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel and magnesium — the quest for which has sometimes been dubbed “a new gold rush” — are necessary for batteries in electric vehicles and in incredibly high demand. China currently controls much of the market for the raw materials used in electric vehicle batteries — from mining operations to processing plants.
Through this project, AidData will collect and analyze granular data on dozens of mining sites, focusing on how operations are affecting the local environment in their surrounding communities, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
“Like all things that we do at AidData, the main motivation is to bring new data and evidence to inform important public decision-making taking place around the world,” said Ammar A. Malik, senior research scientist at AidData, who leads the Chinese Development Finance Program.
Malik is heading up the minerals project that will build upon AidData’s existing data set of Chinese development projects worth $843 billion across 165 countries.
“We will focus on the financing and implementation networks enabling projects — including the banks and contractors involved in the delivery of mining projects,” Malik said. “Because China does not disclose details of their overseas development activities, there is very little data on these projects. We are trying to systematically and rigorously understand this issue in a consistent way.”
Researchers will consider environmental, health and safety impacts from mining, such as deforestation and reduced air quality.
“When a mining operation starts up, it further exposes where governance systems aren’t working,” Malik said. “If you don’t have good labor rights or environmental protections, it makes underlying problems worse.”
The AidData team will also look into the economic and social effects of mining, he said: “Does it exacerbate inequities between the haves and the have-nots in those societies? Are men benefiting more than women?”
Environmental protection, response to climate change and exploring the role of gender are common threads across the projects funded by both grants.
In Ghana, AidData is partnering with an agricultural research organization, the International Potato Center (known as CIP), to study how to promote and sustain the growth of sweet potatoes. These tubers supply nutrients that are necessary for child development and are lacking in some of the country’s other staple crops.
Encroachment of the Sahara Desert, termed desertification, is a major hindrance to crop growth in parts of the country.
“They’re having longer and longer dry seasons with less and less rain,” said Ariel BenYishay, chief economist and director of research and evaluation at AidData as well as a William & Mary associate professor of economics.
Typically, a portion of the crop would be set aside for replanting the next year, but storing it through the lengthening dry season presents a challenge, he said: “A lot of these potatoes are basically not viable as seeds for that long.” CIP developed a solution to protect the potatoes for replanting by storing them in layers of sand.
Moving forward, AidData and CIP will study the spread of information about crops and nutrition through varied sources in the villages — men, women, people of higher status and lower status — to evaluate accuracy of the information, how it is spread and how listeners respond.
“In Northern Ghana, the responsibility of growing things like sweet potatoes falls predominantly to women, and women are also making most of the decisions about which foods to feed their children,” BenYishay said. “But that doesn’t mean women get all the say about what they grow and what they feed their kids. It will be interesting to see whether spreading the information through one gender’s networks versus another’s makes a difference.”
AidData’s previous experience in Ghana has demonstrated the importance of collecting data about farming from both men and women, because surveys in which only the head of the household is asked questions tend to produce less accurate results. Conclusions from the earlier study — funded by the Hewlett Foundation and Innovations for Poverty Action — will be released in an upcoming working paper that will be submitted to an academic journal.
For that study, AidData partnered with the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana) to collect data from over 2,400 households and compare it with satellite imagery of farming plots.
In addition, AidData is working with CDD-Ghana to explore gender bias in artificial intelligence applications for estimating poverty. AidData and CDD-Ghana will host a workshop in Ghana for a mix of policymakers, aid donors, researchers and advocacy groups interested in addressing gender equity in decision making using survey data, poverty estimates and AI.
The workshop is being funded through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Equitable AI Challenge. The USAID initiative invests in programs that help identify and address gender biases within artificial intelligence systems, particularly those relevant to global development.
AidData’s work funded by the Hewlett Foundation helped catalyze a major Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant last fall to broaden the use of satellite imagery for studying agriculture and climate resiliency in developing countries. Each foundation is funding a portfolio of projects that are complementary in terms of their agricultural and gender focus, BenYishay said.
“We hope that when we put all that together, we will have upwards of 10 projects that are letting us learn a lot about what’s working, where there are points of synergy and ways to move forward more holistically,” he said.
BenYishay emphasizes that half of the $1.2 million Hewlett Foundation grant will be shared with African partners who are collaborators on the projects.
“We’re trying to have these partners to participate in the research design from the outset,” he said. “The underlying research partnership is meant to flow in both directions. We meaningfully exchange ideas and they help to shape the longer-term direction here as well.”