Development for Profit: Rethinking Research Practice

As Ph.D students with years of experience in social development research in the Global South, the authors reveal the inherent inequalities and failures in every stage of the research process.

Published: Jul 17, 2023  |  

Ph.D. candidate and researcher in the field of migration


Co-written with Sarah Edgcumbe.

The first article in this two-part series highlighted some of the most entrenched problems with research conducted within the development-for-profit sector.

In this article, we will respond to these issues by suggesting alternative ways of conducting development-oriented research which are less colonial, less exploitative, less inflictive, and more ethical. Replacing the donor’s agenda with community priorities in sites of research, critically questioning research methodologies, and opening space for alternative knowledge systems would generate research findings that are more contextually relevant, thereby informing more sustainable development programming. 

There are several stages in the research process.

The proposal is the first step in which consultancies can ensure inclusive conceptualization and research design that sufficiently responds to community objectives. Unfortunately, the competitive and time-restrictive nature of the development-for-profit industry privileges the use of template research designs put together without any prior consultation with the community of research. 

Both authors have experienced being pressured to copy and paste methodologies into proposals on the premise that it is “what donors know and want”. Such methodologies usually involve a pick’n’mix of surveys, key-informant interviews (a data collection tool associated with interviews of elites and development organizations themselves) semi-structured interviews (a data collection tool associated with “ordinary people”, as if they cannot possibly know more than local elites, or foreign “technical experts”, about their everyday lives and the needs of their communities), and case studies in their most superficial form. These methodologies are unfailingly very generic in conceptualization and practice, and disembedded from demographic, cultural, and historical dynamics. 

As an Algerian, Yacine has always been bothered by the MENA categorization of his country—as if Arab countries were homogenous. Contrary to this categorizing logic, Algeria and Lebanon (for example) are extremely different in all aspects: from economics to demographic to language. Even within North Africa, contexts differ immensely from one country to the other. The same goes for the overused “sub-Saharan” Africa categorization. These generalizations of language that research consultancies reproduce to win bids, subsequently enable policymakers and donors to generalize their approaches—thus creating a vicious cycle.  

To produce meaningful research, humanitarian and development research consultancies must avoid relying on and reproducing oversimplifying Western-centric views which distort the world through the lens of colonialism.  We acknowledge that it is not easy to challenge a donor’s agenda, and we are not expecting radical shifts in a day. However, acknowledging the problematic nature of the neocolonial research environment that encourages rushing reports and generalization of peoples, cultures, geographic areas, and issues would be a first step towards achieving collaborative research. 

Research sites should not be treated as laboratories by consultancies. Both authors have experience working for a consultancy which repeatedly fails to stay in the lane in which it has expertise. We encourage consultancies to know their place—their thematic or geographic area of knowledge and experience—and inhabit it meaningfully. Imposing research paradigms upon often over-researched communities usually results in poor research outcomes for the consultancy and commissioning organization, but also research fatigue, or even retraumatization for research participants.

For these reasons, building consistent, open channels of communication with communities that are free from assumptions and based on trust, can both provide rich insights and contribute to reshaping research practice more broadly. This lays the foundations for considering “locals” not only as passive participants, but also as advisors on research agenda and objectives, cultural sensitivities, and methodologies.

Consultancy directors and senior managers have significant resources at their disposal. Depending on their clientele they often benefit from a network that ranges from governmental departments, international organizations, scholars, and non-governmental organizations. They have the social and political capital to muscle their way into forums to which they were not initially invited, to publish their work widely, and to shape public discourse through media interviews. 

Meanwhile, national researchers in the Global South who are hired by consultancies may have much less (if any) access to such political and social capital despite their academic credentials, lived experience, and deep insight into the communities in which research is conducted. The very least that consultancies could do is pay them better and name them as co-authors in reports and research outputs, rather than use them to collect data as part of an imposed methodology, then drop them completely. 

Providing the finances and time for national researchers to work alongside core consultancy staff would enable them to be involved in data analysis and writing. Such an approach would prevent consultancies from being able to interpret data so that it corresponds with donor agendas, whilst also ensuring that data is analyzed in a contextually authentic manner.

Having a body of published work demonstrating experience and ability would not only open doors for national researchers, but it would also assist them in commanding a higher rate from the consultancies which currently exploit them so willingly. Data collectors should also be paid much better and so we encourage consultancies to engage in a process of meaningful revision of their research ethics, rather than a profit-driven race to the bottom.

It is a commonly held myth among consultancies that they are benefitting the communities in which they conduct research, through their reports catalyzing positive change. This is a dishonest type of vanity. Donors significantly restrict the ability of organizations to meaningfully collaborate with communities to facilitate the radical structural changes which so many would likely seek to achieve.

It is time for donors and consultancies to give serious thought to how they can demonstrate respect for the time offered by community members who sit through focus groups and interviews for free—despite neither receiving, nor experiencing any kind of benefit. 

Rather than endlessly focusing on profit, consultancies should work with communities to demand a commitment in terms of community-based projects or needs which can be supported during and beyond the research period, or better still, to discuss with the community what reparations would look like for them, and how this could be achieved.

Acknowledging the position of privilege from which many consultancies operate allows for humility and revision in practice. It is time to deconstruct assumptions and start thinking about development research from the perspective of communities in the Global South rather than donors in the Global North.

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