Eradicating Guinea Worm: What do our data have to say?

Using guinea worm as an example here are some points which highlight the strengths of AidData while also focusing on the need for further improved data in certain areas.

April 30, 2010

Mike Tierney


In yesterday's New York Times Nicholas Kristof highlights an area of good news in the developing world: progress on the eradication of Guinea worm. I'll direct you to hisarticle if you want a brief description of this terrible parasite, the effects it has on those who are infected, and how it spreads. It'll make you grateful for clean water, especially if you look at the photos.


And it'll also make you grateful for the hard work of individuals who've been fighting to eradicate the disease because it appears they are meeting with great success. To quote Kristof's article, “For the last 24 years, former President Jimmy Carter has led the global struggle against the disease. When he started, there were 3.5 million cases annually in 20 countries. Last year, there were fewer than 3,200 cases in four countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, and Sudan.”


Such numbers are truly something to celebrate. And we wouldn't be researchers if such an article didn't also bring a lot of questions to mind:

  • “Was foreign aid a positive contributor to that outcome or do other variables claim the majority of the credit?”
  • “Were official donors even contributing to this successful eradication campaign or was it entirely addressed by the private sector?”
  • “What other parasitic diseases are aid donors currently focusing on?”

Yet, as all good researchers know, the problem is not in finding good questions but in finding good data to help answer those questions. Here at AidData we have been (and continue to be!) hard at work trying to improve data on development finance to help researchers answer questions like these. Using guinea worm as an example here are some points which highlight the strengths of AidData while also focusing on the need for further improved data in certain areas.


Let's say you wanted to ask the question:

“Which donors have made contributions specifically for Guinea Worm?”


Would you be shocked if I told you the answer to this question was that the second biggest contributor was Kuwait? And that the data also reveals that the Carter Foundation received some of their funding from the OPEC Fund for International Development (the third largest donor in this chart)?


Are you suddenly inclined to feel more charitable towards oil exporters because though you curse under your breath as you fill your gas tank each week you can now view them as an organization that is helping to eradicate an awful disease? Or are suddenly skeptical of these numbers because it seems hard to believe that rich developing nations like the US and Japan are giving less than Kuwait and OPEC?


Well lets review how I arrived at these numbers, we're all about transparency here at AidData. If you keyword search the data for the terms "Guinea worm" and "Dracunculosis" you'd find the following breakdown by donor:

[Note: is still in beta and we are aware our keyword search function on the website is lacking. We are working on improving it. In the meantime we recommend you perform your keyword searches in an external SQL client. You can download the full dataset to do such keyword searches by using the current research release.]


Do you still find this chart surprising? To be honest, though this certainly highlights some (perhaps many) of the dollars allocated to combat guinea worm, it is certainly not an accurate representation of all financing for the campaign.


This is a great opportunity to highlight several weak points in the data that currently make it difficult to narrow down this type of information accurately.


Reasons why certain flows may not be included here:

  • Donors have reported limited information. Depending on the donor we may be lacking either breadth of coverage (# of years, types of flows reported) or depth of coverage (# of fields populated, quality of descriptive information). If a donor has given money to help combat guinea worm but the information they report only tells us they gave funding for "infectious disease" we cannot isolate these dollars from other dollars committed to fund infectious disease. The United States may have contributed muchmore funding to guinea worm eradication than we can isolate here--but we don't KNOW because the descriptive quality of their data does not allow us to isolate these funds.
  • The source of the financing is a private foundation. Currently AidData does not have information from private foundations public on the website, though we are currently working to obtain some of this data. The data available right now in our database consists of information from official bilateral donors and multilateral organizations--some of them funnel their donations through private foundations like the Carter foundation, this OPEC grant. [Certainly we know we are missing some private foundation financing--you can find, for example, that the Gates Foundation has given 2 grants to the Carter Foundation for this purpose (see them here and here). If we include the Gates dollars they would surpass even the United Kingdom on this graph.]
  • Language barriers. Some data is not in English making it tricky to isolate information based on key words.

Anyway, what's the bottom line? Well the bottom line is this: AidData makes it easier for a variety of users to ask questions and find answers using data, but the improvement of some of the data makes it very apparent how much work there is left to do in creating a comprehensive database of development finance. Searching AidData would help you find information on Kuwait & OPEC's contributions alongside the donors you'd find in other datasets (like the OECD CRS), but AidData is still constrained by the quality of the data made available by donors.