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How Do Different Forms of Foreign Aid Affect Government Legitimacy? Evidence from an Informational Experiment in Uganda


Local public goods and social services are delivered through a variety of funding and implementing channels in aid-dependent countries. Existing research proposes that international aid to governments undermines government legitimacy and the fiscal contract between citizens and their rulers. We outline how the implications of fiscal contract theory differ depending on whether aid takes the form of donors funding projects through the government, donors funding projects through NGOs, or the government outsourcing project implementation to NGOs. We test these predictions using an informational experiment among N = 2446 Ugandan adults in 18 communities with foreign-funded, NGO-implemented projects. We randomize the amount of information that we provide about these projects. Our results suggest that donor-to-government funding has limited effects on citizens’ opinions about their government. Only bypass aid (i.e., donor aid to NGOs) undermines citizens’ assessments of government performance, while only NGO implementation reduces the willingness of citizens to pay fees to the government or to donate to community funds. Government legitimacy, as measured by individuals’ willingness to comply with government instructions, is very low to begin with and is not influenced by information about different forms of aid.

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Fig. 1


  1. We asked respondents to name projects carried out in their area in the past 5 years that had improved the situation of the people. Among the subset of respondents who named specific development projects, 53% named the project we had selected for our information experiment as the most impactful project that had happened. We collected this information only during the second round of the survey (i.e., in 10 communities).

  2. Suchman (1995) refers to legitimacy that originates in organizational accomplishments as “consequential legitimacy” and to legitimacy that originates in organizational characteristics that confer a favorable taxonomic status as “structural legitimacy.”

  3. Similarly, Bodea and LeBas (2016) show how tax morale decreases in urban Nigeria in places where community club goods provision substitutes for state public goods provision.

  4. According to the 2012 Afrobarometer survey, 36% of respondents had contacted a local government councilor in the past year, whereas only 19% had contacted their MP. Unfortunately, the Afrobarometer wording does not allow us to distinguish between contact with sub-county councilors and district councilors. In our own survey, 18% of respondents report having contacted their sub-county chairperson in the past year, and 8% of respondents report having contacted their MP.

  5. Upon arriving in selected communities, we used convenience sampling to mobilize focus group participants.

  6. The parish is the administrative level below the sub-county.

  7. As described below, we collected information on politicians’ assessments of the projects through a separate survey of sub-county chairpersons.

  8. We initially identified the GGP projects for the 2016 wave of data collection using information from the Ugandan Aid Management Platform (, accessed 12 July 2016) before obtaining a comprehensive list of projects from the Embassy of Japan website (, accessed 12 July 2016). We appreciate the guidance that we received from AidData about using the Uganda Aid Management Platform. For the 2017 sample, we consulted directly with Embassy of Japan staff about the most recent GGP projects.

  9. “As of … 2011, GGP projects have been implemented in 138 countries and territories around the world” (Embassy of Japan, Uganda 2015, 1). Since 1992, there have been over 200 projects in Uganda; currently, the embassy awards around 15 projects per year (Embassy of Japan, author’s interview, January 2016).

  10. In Uganda, there are some cases where Japan has given GGP funds directly to local governments; we did not include any such cases in our study.

  11. In the first round of the survey, we also excluded projects in communities where incumbent politicians were not seeking reelection.

  12. We randomized treatment assignment within strata defined by the sub-county and the respondent’s gender.

  13. We first screened respondents for whether or not they already paid such fees and then asked them to either imagine an increase in such fees (if they were already paying them) or else to imagine both that they were paying such fees and that the fees were increased. We pool together the responses from respondents currently paying such fees and respondents not currently paying.

  14. This represents somewhere between one-sixth and one-half of average daily earnings in the areas we surveyed.

  15. All money collected in the donation game was given to the NGO in charge of the GGP projects that formed the basis of our survey. We reported these donations to the Embassy of Japan.

  16. This prompt was carefully worded so that it was consistent with the Ugandan government’s policies and laws, and did not involve deception or undue pressure to donate. Dolan also uses this framework in her contribution to this special issue.

  17. We declined to collect additional donations beyond the money that we provided to the respondents.

  18. Alternatively, respondents may not have assumed the money would be given directly to the NGO without passing through the government first in this treatment arm.

  19. This interpretation is related to the explanation put forward by Cilliers et al. (2015) for the fact that citizens donate more funds in behavioral games in the presence of a foreigner.

  20. Dolan (this issue) finds similar negative results of government endorsement on donations in Kenya.


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We thank Joshua Bwiira, Vianney Mbonigaba, Peter Cutler, Martin Atyera, Damien Kirchhoffer, Daniele Ressler, Glynis Startz, and the rest of the excellent team at IPA Uganda for assistance in developing and administering the surveys. Thanks to Naho Sakano, Leonard Francis, Joan Aja, and Tadakazu Kanno at the Japanese Embassy in Uganda for useful conversations about the GGP Program. Thanks to Rob Blair, Tim Büthe, Candelaria Garay, Tomoya Matsumoto, Christoph Mikulaschek, and Peter Schraeder for useful comments on earlier drafts.


This project was supported by an AidData Research Funding Award pilot grant and the Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS) Field Experiments Initiative. While working on this project, Winters was a CFR-Hitachi International Affairs Fellow at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Japan. The human subjects’ protocol for this research was approved by Institutional Review Boards at Yale University (1507016212), the University of Illinois (16141), Innovations for Poverty Action (14282), and MildMay Uganda (0509015).

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Baldwin, K., Winters, M.S. How Do Different Forms of Foreign Aid Affect Government Legitimacy? Evidence from an Informational Experiment in Uganda. St Comp Int Dev 55, 160–183 (2020).

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  • Foreign aid
  • Legitimacy
  • Fiscal contract
  • Uganda