Rethinking Foreign Aid and Legitimacy: Views from Aid Recipients in Kenya


Contrary to scholarly predictions, foreign aid does not appear to undermine individuals’ beliefs in the legitimacy of their governments. This paper aims to understand why this prediction has failed to materialize in mounting evidence. I develop explanations inductively based on original descriptive evidence from a survey and in-depth interviews in western Kenya. I propose, first, that the prediction itself incorrectly assumes individuals expect their governments to be self-sufficient, and second, tax-based measurements of legitimacy are sometimes ill-suited to developing country contexts. I offer specific suggestions for how future studies can overcome these limitations in their theories and research designs. The contribution of this project is to facilitate future research by furnishing detailed and descriptive evidence on how individuals from a relevant sample think about politics and aid.

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  1. 1.

    While this is not the only conceptualization of legitimacy, it is the one that has been invoked in the study of foreign aid and therefore is the focus of my discussion. This contemporary approach in political science is often called “audience legitimacy” or “procedural legitimacy” and follows from a Weberian legal-rational tradition. For earlier approaches in political science, see Rothschild (1977); for alternative approaches in law and sociology, see Suchman (1995); Bottoms and Tankebe (2012); Tyler and Jackson (2013).

  2. 2.

    See also Whaites (1998); Schuller (2009); Batley and Mcloughlin (2010); Brinkerhoff et al. (2012).

  3. 3.

    A more detailed summary of the following literature review appears in the Appendix.

  4. 4.

    Blair and Roessler (2018) preregistered their hypothesis that attributing aid projects to a foreign donor would reduce tax compliance, their measure of government legitimacy. This is further evidence that most scholars have, in their applications of existing theories, predicted a negative relationship between foreign aid and government legitimacy. See registration-details/1285.

  5. 5.

    While there is also surprising new evidence that foreign aid improves political institutions (see Jones and Tarp 2016), this is a separate mechanism from the one invoked in predictions about government legitimacy. My review and investigation concern itself with arguments about how individuals perceive the legitimacy of their governments, holding constant the quality of governance itself.

  6. 6.

    Response from survey participant 41, October 27, 2015. Participant was asked to explain why s/he expressed agreement with the statement: “Wealthy countries usually give more aid to countries with ineffective governments.”

  7. 7.

    Author’s interview, November 16, 2015. See, for example, Briggs (2012, 2014); Jablonski (2014).

  8. 8.

    For example, author’s interview, July 20, 2015.

  9. 9.

    Response from survey participant 65, October 29, 2015.

  10. 10.

    Response from survey participant 52, October 28, 2015.

  11. 11.

    This question asked individuals to rate their agreement with two statements: “Wealthy countries usually give more aid to countries with ineffective governments.” or “Wealthy countries usually give more aid to countries with effective governments.” Forty-nine percent agreed with the first while 45% agreed with the second (6% agreed with neither, N = 155). The quotations above are typical of the open-ended responses given by most participants.

  12. 12.

    A caveat is that my study investigates individuals’ perceptions of the revenue sources of the central government, not their perceptions of how individual projects are funded. Dietrich et al. (2018) find individuals are generally unaware of the funding source of specific projects. Understanding the relationship between awareness of local project donors and national government donors is a topic for future research.

  13. 13.

    Results calculated using pairwise complete observations to make use of as much data as possible. However, results are similar when calculated using complete observations (coefficients of .66 and .59 respectively), limiting the sample to 74 respondents who answered all five questions.

  14. 14.

    Willingness to be taxed is just one example of a broader category of measures concerning individuals’ perceived obligation to obey the law (Bottoms and Tankebe 2012, 163). Studies about NGOs and foreign aid have focused on the perceived rights of tax authorities, which more directly relate to the goods and services provided by government, while studies in the criminal justice domain focus on the perceived rights of law enforcement officials.

  15. 15.

    See Wright and Winters (2010) for a review of the aid allocation literature.

  16. 16.

    A caveat to this argument is that aid does not always reach the poorest. Winters (2014) points out that there is substantial variation in the success of targeting aid projects to the poorest areas and, subsequently, to the poorest people within those areas. Politically connected individuals and communities may be able to better capture aid, even if they are not as needy. Even so, since the intent behind an aid project is often to benefit the least well-off, it is important to recognize that aid beneficiaries will have, on average, lower tax burdens. An alternative or additional mechanism driving this relationship could be that there is less need to tax certain communities because they receive foreign aid—see Eubank (2012) and Marineau (2020).

  17. 17.

    See, e.g., Blair and Roessler 2018; Blair 2018.

  18. 18.

    Author’s observations, August–November 2015. See the Appendix for an example of a Kenyan government poster encouraging individuals to be tested for tuberculosis.

  19. 19.

    Suggestive evidence for this third claim appears in the Appendix.


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This paper was previously circulated under the title “Attitudes toward Foreign Aid in Recipient Countries: Evidence from Microdata from Kenya.” I am grateful to John Okinda and Moses Onyango for excellent research assistance. Thanks to Eric Arias, Chris Blattman, Allison Carnegie, Alicia Cooperman, Kolby Hanson, Mary Louis, Lucy Martin, Anna Wilke, and Matthew Winters. This work also benefited from feedback from participants in Columbia University workshops and at ISA 2016, MPSA 2016, the 2017 Workshop on Experiments in Foreign Aid Research, and APSA 2018.


This project was made possible through generous support from the Columbia University Department of Political Science, the Columbia University Center for Development Economics and Policy, and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (Grant DGE-11-44155).

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Correspondence to Lindsay R. Dolan.

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This project was approved by the Columbia University Institutional Review Board under protocol AAAP6605 and permitted by the Government of Kenya.

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Dolan, L.R. Rethinking Foreign Aid and Legitimacy: Views from Aid Recipients in Kenya. St Comp Int Dev 55, 143–159 (2020).

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  • Foreign aid
  • Legitimacy
  • Taxation
  • Measurement