Did Aid Promote Democracy in Africa? The Role of Technical Assistance in Africa’s Transitions

Clark Gibson, Barak Hoffman, Ryan Jablonski


This paper argues that while aid has increased resources available for patronage in earlier periods, it also increased the extent to which donors paid attention to government spending and corruption, making it more costly for governments to use foreign aid for patronage. Specifically, it argues that when donors invest in policies that increase monitoring, measured using technical assistance, there should be an increase in political liberalisation. In contrast, more fungible types of aid have negligible, and often perverse, impacts on patronage and liberalisation.

In order to test whether high levels of monitoring contributed to political liberalisation, the study separates technical assistance from other forms of aid. It finds robust evidence supporting the argument. When technical assistance as a share of GDP increases, the probability of political liberalisation increases. There is no such effect for other forms of aid; in fact, there is an increase in patronage spending under some specifications.

Key Findings:

  • The political concessions model helps to tie together the facts, theories and conventional wisdoms associated with Africa’s recent liberalisation. The model helps to account not only for the post 1989 timing of the political transformations on the continent, but also for some of the variation in the rate and extent of those changes across countries.
  • The model also combines both the international and domestic factors identified by scholars as important, and incorporates new insights into how the type of aid matters to explaining political change.
  • Aid can be seen as both entrenching dictators and helping to unseat them.
  • Domestic considerations alone have difficulty explaining the multitude of transition elections over a short time period in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The study finds robust evidence for the idea that the composition of foreign aid hd some role in African political change. The significance of technical assistance as an independent variable proves quite resilient over a number of robustness checks and in the face of conventional factors used to explain this transition period.


Teasing out the political logics of different types of aid may be a fruitful line of scholarship aimed at explaining the domestic political effects of foreign aid.


Gibson, C., Hoffman, B. & Jablonski, R. (2015) Did Aid Promote Democracy in Africa? The Role of Technical Assistance in Africa’s Transitions.