International Organization

Research Article

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

Tim Büthea1, Solomon Majora2 and André de Mello e Souzaa3

a1 Duke University, Durham, N.C. E-mail:

a2 Strategic Research Department, U.S. Naval War College, Newport, R.I. E-mail:

a3 Institute for Applied Economic Research, Brasília, Brazil. E-mail:


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.

Tim Büthe is Associate Professor of Political Science at Duke University and Senior Fellow of the Duke Rethinking Regulation Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Durham, N.C. He can be reached at or

Solomon Major is Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department of the U.S. Naval War College, Newport, R.I. E-mail:

André de Mello e Souza is Researcher at the Institute for Applied Economic Research, Brasília, Brazil. E-mail:


  For online appendixes and replication data, see or

For comments and constructive criticisms, we thank Deborah Avant, Sarah Blodgett Bermeo, Clifford Bob, Jennifer Brass, Sarah Büthe, Cindy Chen, Giacomo Chiozza, Alexander Cooley, Page Fortna, Jeff Frieden, Christopher Gelpi, Clark Gibson, Peter Katzenstein, William Keech, Judith Kelley, Robert Keohane, Anirudh Krishna, Moonhawk Kim, Candace Lewis, Kimberly Marten, Crystal Murphy, Eric Neumayer, Daniel Nielson, Ron Rogowski James Ron, Shanker Satyanath, Kathryn Sikkink, Michael Ward, Steven Weber, Erik Wibbels, Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, Boliang Zhu, the editors and anonymous reviewers for IO, and audiences at Columbia, Duke, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, APSA, and IPES. Corresponding author Tim Büthe's research for this project was supported by a seed grant from the Center for Development, Democracy, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, Trent Foundation grant #383-7968, and a RWJ Foundation SHPR fellowship at UC Berkeley/UCSF. André de Mello e Souza's research was supported by the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico, Brazil. Solomon Major's research was supported by fellowships at Clemson University and UC Santa Barbara. For sharing data, we thank Erik Gartzke, Scott Kastner, Soo Yeon Kim, David Lake, David Leblang, Helen Milner, Eric Neumayer, Erik Voeten, Michael Ward, and most importantly the NGOs listed in the NGO Sample Appendix. For research assistance, we thank Bruno Borges, Claudia Teixeira dos Santos, Amanda Flaim, Jen Haskell, Tammy Hwang, Ashley Kustu, Danielle Lupton, David Rice, Julia Torti, and Michael Wiggins.