Development for Profit: The Commercialization of Research?

Many of us understand the development industry as resource mobilization, with corresponding intervention or action designed to improve the lives of others. However, there is a dark underbelly to the field of development—one mired in the endless pursuit of profit through the commercialization of displacement, poverty, and the violence of inequality.

Published: Jul 14, 2023  |  

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


The development, or “aid”, sector has been framed as angelically philanthropic for many years, but beyond such an idealistic perspective lurks the cynic pragmatism of donor countries based in the so-called “Global North”, leveraging their aid in exchange for cooperation on questions of irregular migration, terrorism, or favorable trade agreements. 

This two-part series written with Sarah Edgcumbe is borne from our experiences working for humanitarian and development consultancies which liberally sprinkle buzz words and phrases such as “decolonization”, “ethics” and “social justice” throughout their websites and social media posts, whilst simultaneously pandering to donors and exploiting communities in need.

This article will shed some light on the implications of current commodifying practices within development research. The second article will suggest alternative practices that could disrupt the continuation of colonial practices in the way such research is conducted.

Development research today is bogged down in myriad problems involving research methodologies, hiring conditions, budget tracking, donor-imposed constraints, and inflexible, colonial agendas. So, amid this swamp, how do communities in the Global South battle their way through to being genuinely heard? Can Western organizations really contribute to development when they are often so inextricably intertwined with capitalist and neoliberal structures which rely on the ability to exploit the Global South without consequence?

Too many humanitarian and development consultancies reinforce the structures that silence or ignore certain demographics, despite their wealth of knowledge and clarity of voice. Donors, organizations, and consultancies need only take the time to listen, while divorcing themselves from pre-set externally formulated agendas.  

Development research, particularly consulting, is frequently extractive to the core. The “uberization” of the global economy has not spared the development sector. Trickledown economics seems to have deeply affected development practices. Donors (often governments, international agencies, and private institutions) fund an organization (e.g., a think tank, or a non-governmental organization) that subcontracts to consulting companies, which hire “national researcher” (residents of the researched country) consultants to conduct fieldwork—frequently in challenging contexts.

Power dynamics hugely influence these exchanges of money, expertise, and ideas, while the incessant drive for profit exacerbates the exploitation of national researchers and communities in which research is conducted. 

Consultancies take advantage of the often-fragile context in which they recruit local data collectors to work under national researchers, hiring them on precarious contracts with negligible social protection. Some consultancy companies go as far as transferring their admin and finance operations to countries with weak labor laws to shield themselves from potential lawsuits in case of accident or injury in research sites, or to dodge taxation, and other financial claims.

Often, organizations that subcontract these consultancy companies fail to track the funds they are allocating for the data collected. They therefore fail to ensure fair payment for researchers from the Global South through their ambivalence towards the profit margin made by the consultancy, nor do they undertake any meaningful ethical assessment of the work they commission.

Provided the consultancy meets the deadline, organizations such as the IOM, UNICEF, or the World Bank pay little attention to how data is collected, turning a blind eye to the exploitation of both national research staff and the communities in which research is conducted, as the latter rarely receives remuneration of any kind.

The difference between funds secured by consultancies and what they offer to national researchers is rarely benchmarked. Take the example of a European conducting research in Kenya. They might have negotiated a rate based on the Global North consulting market (which is already much higher than the regular job market).

However, if a Kenyan or a Tanzanian is contracted to perform the same work, they are far more likely to be contracted based according to the Global South’s job market rate, regardless of whether they are more qualified, experienced, and capable than the European researcher. Such an asymmetry is justified as avoiding the disruption of the national economy or because one did not pursue marketable education within top-ranked universities.

But this is not convincing. The lack of regulation combined with intense competition for funding in the development-for-profit sector not only enables such exploitative practices but encourages them.

Finally, after the national researcher invests the physical and emotional labor, sometimes also working in contexts of fragile peace or armed conflict to collect data, their experience and expertise are neither requested nor valued, beyond this aspect of the work. Both authors during their employment in consultancies have experienced situations that reek of racism, discrimination, and colonialism.

Despite national researchers understanding the context, being privy to cultural nuances and conflict dynamics, and not least, having met research participants in person, they are too often excluded from data analysis, the writing process, and any corresponding public events. Development-for-profit consultancies too often act as gatekeepers and fail to address the colonial nature of their business practices. Consultancy directors, and sometimes European staff are cited in reports, but national researchers are not.

Such a dynamic unfairly elevates the status of one, whilst erasing the crucial knowledge contributions and hard work of the other. This selective erasure is often justified by issues of “quality standards” as if the term was unequivocal. Omitting to remind us of who defines what is and what is not “quality”.  This insidious arbitrariness contributes to reducing the credits of national researchers whilst simultaneously curtailing creativity and research innovation. 

These are just a few concrete examples of the extremely problematic form in which the development industry thrives and reproduces colonial prejudices, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Research should be about disrupting lazy narratives which reinforce power imbalances through informing evidence-led strategies and policies. The question remains, however, whether data can be impactful if the environment in which it is collected is so exploitative.  

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