Studying the Impact of Aid in the Western Balkans

Hi! My name is Connor Smith, and I am a rising sophomore. Thanks to the generosity of the Weingartner family, I will be working with Professor Paula Pickering of the Government Department on her research this summer. I am really excited to have this opportunity, and I think this vibrant blogging community really speaks to W&M’s unique commitment to undergraduate research.

Professor Pickering’s research this summer is part of her ongoing interest in the impact of governance aid in the Balkans. Particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a post-conflict dynamic makes for a challenging environment for international actors trying to launch and maintain programs. Along with another assistant, I will be working with Professor Pickering to discern factors that determine how much impact particular aid strategies have.

Of course, this poses a pretty significant challenge. By what standard can we judge these programs? Many NGOs and government programs themselves have self-measurement mechanisms, but these do little to take public opinion into account. Additionally, with the pressure of funding, many of these implementing organizations concern themselves with concrete, short-term indicators like the number of workshops held in a particular year or single-case investment projects. Professor Pickering’s research has shown these to be extremely superficial measurements of the impact of these programs.

Encouraging good governance obviously implies an impact on the actual communities. By focusing our efforts on the municipality level, we will hopefully be able to assess public opinion with a clear picture of the programs that are active in the particular communities. It is all too easy for both aid practitioners and critics to let their own civic norms influence how they feel programs are impacting the community, so we will emphasize the opinions of citizens of the communities receiving aid. To this end, a large part of our role will be working with software to code qualitative public opinion into quantitative data to analyze.

While we are still working on the specific course of our research, a particularly tense current political situation in Bosnia will necessitate flexibility. We may begin our project by looking at some similar programs in other countries of the Western Balkans, particularly in Macedonia. With Bosnian politics in flux, we will have to constantly monitor the effects of that dynamic on the aid community. There is a strong history of re-drawing municipality lines across the former Yugoslavia to reflect political change, so we will also be keeping close watch on changes of that nature.

Personally, I think this situation is a testament to how relevant Professor Pickering’s research is. While open conflict in the Balkans has been thankfully dormant for about a decade, rebuilding governance is a process that is long-term and still heavily influenced by the scars of conflict. By scrutinizing the impact of international governance aid, I am optimistic that her research can eventually provide concrete suggestions for the aid community to deepen their impact.

I am extremely excited to be on this project, and I’m looking forward to an interesting summer!