Which country has a better foreign aid policy – the United States or China?
Furman alumnus Davis Cousar ’20 pondered the question for some time before deciding he would tackle it as his senior research project.
When the paper won a senior honors essay award, he was thrilled. But when it was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Political Science, he was stunned.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “Undergraduates don’t get published that often.”
It’s so rare that Brent F. Nelsen, professor of politics and international affairs, remembers only one other in his 31 years at Furman.
“You have to be pretty ambitious and quick out of the blocks after you’ve graduated to get an article polished up enough to send off for review,” he said. “And Davis is one of the most successful I’ve ever seen.”
Cousar, 23, a Furman Fellow, grew up in Anderson, South Carolina, about 30 miles from Furman. Though he was set to attend graduate school in London, those plans were dashed by the pandemic.
So, in July, he moved to Washington, D.C. to take a job as a research assistant with the American Institutes for Research, though he still plans to pursue a public policy graduate degree one day.
The political science and economics major said a series of Furman experiences led him to his research topic, including attending the 2018 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Papua New Guinea, which featured Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence talking about their nations’ foreign aid.
Essentially, Cousar said, the U.S. was backing off foreign aid through its America First policy while China was expanding its aid, but with strings attached.
He also worked in Brussels researching economic policy and looking into how foreign aid impacts public perceptions.
Those experiences got him thinking about why countries might want to take aid from the U.S. instead of China, resulting in his paper: “Buying Friendship: The Belt and Road Initiative, Foreign Aid, and Attitudes Toward the U.S. and China.”
The work is relevant, Nelsen said, because the U.S. and China are competing for the affection of other countries, a concept called soft power, and the research looked to ascertain how perceptions might translate into influence.
“Davis used public opinion to see if they’re successful in using this to improve public perception,” he said. “And it turns out yes, it is true.”
Cousar also used data that he’d generated on his own, which Nelsen describes as “graduate school level work.”
For his part, Cousar says he couldn’t have produced his paper without the help of Nelsen and professors Katherine Kaup, Nathan Cook and Cleve Fraser.
“I had amazing access to professors who talked to me about my idea,” he said. “Dr. Nelsen especially … answered all my questions along the way and I had a lot of them. And he read countless drafts of my paper. It’s hard to find that, especially as an undergrad.”
The paper was part of Nelsen’s Senior Research Seminar, which is open to between eight and 12 senior political science majors aimed at producing an 8,000-10,000 word Journal-style article, Nelsen said.
“It typically attracts our top students because it is run very much like a graduate school research seminar,” he said. “We push hard for those students to take this class because it’s the best way to understand what political science research is all about.”
But it’s broad exposure through overseas study, internships and other real-world experiences, in addition to rigorous courses and access to professors, that give Furman students an edge, he said.