Why International Development is not Science



Yesterday I attended the FeedbackLabs Smart Thing Summit, where people who care about the way that the aid world listens to the people they aim to serve talked about how to solve the systemic “not listening” and “not reacting” problem. At one point, the facilitators had everyone line up according to how much they agreed or disagreed with this statement:

Feedback loops are difficult for we Development Practitioners because we are too focused on science as the basis for decision making.

… or something like that. I stood on the extreme “disagree” end of the spectrum, along with Caroline Fiennes, Danya Brown, and (either Tim Odgen or David Evans, can’t remember exactly). Each of us disagreed for a different reason: Tim/David believed feedback loops are scientific, or at least can be. And Dayna believed other things are a bigger problem, like perverse incentives.

What is Science?

I believe International Development is not Science. I asked the room, “how many of you are scientists?” What is Science, exactly? Most people think following the scientific method is Science, and the grade school textbooks teach this. But there’s more to Science. For a field of inquiry to become a true Science, something else needs to happen.


Practitioners in each of the Hard Sciences hold one central theory in common. Biologists believe that evolution explains everything about life on Earth. You cannot understand life without understanding and accepting evolution is the mechanism, and “ontogeny” – the big word that means “all life is connected.”

All Chemistry can be explained by the motion and interaction of molecules. The rules of Chemistry are postulates derived from this first principle.

Physics has its “standard model” – an explanation of the universe as the effect of four fundamental forces. They only disagree around the edges of this theory, asking what is the right way to apply these forces in certain situations, or whether all four forces ultimately merge into one force (at least three of them can merge together, mathematically speaking, under extreme conditions).

But International Development is nothing like this.science-2

International Development is in the alchemy and “spontaneous generation” phase of its history as a proto-science.


Our theories about how to end poverty, or what prosperity really is for people are disjointed. There is no effort to compare, combine, and debunk competing development theories. The way that “aid” is funded is the culprit. Just as politicians are politicizing Science (which attempts to unto the reductive central truth of the field), Aid agencies and funders operate according to whatever alchemy satisfies their agendas. All theories become reduced to buzzwords which pass in and out of favor every 5 years.

This transient interest in development ideas prevents the mechanism that Thomas Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions from working.


Science slowly amalgamates evidence into theories, which then compete with each other on the evidence. The surprising conclusion Kuhn reached was that each cycle of consolidation takes one generation. Old leaders of the last Scientific era have to literally die out before a younger generation can come along and see plainly what a fuller body of evidence is revealing. So in 60 years, International Development has had about 4 generational epiphanies. This is far too few for it to begin to be a Science. Even Computer Science, something quite new, has had more to 20.

What this leaves us with is a group of smart people agreeing to disagree, and aid agencies doing their own thing and hoping that statistics on local solutions will translate to universal first principals. If this happens, it is more by accident than by design. But as I have written previously, accidents are still part of progress.


Accidents are raw material for evolution, and evolution takes thousands of generations. The scientific method is really a hack on the evolution of ideas whereby we always pick the better of two ideas instead of leaving it up to probabilities and large scale replication. The outcomes never look obvious in the middle of a process, as Michael Woolcock cleverly illustrated:

This is a great example of why change is not linear, and why Development is not approaching a Science only 60 years into our history. Biology, Chemistry, and Physics have been at it for thousands of years, and at least 400 years in a rigorous documented, peer-reviewed, “Kuhnian” manner of speaking. Development has not yet reached time-ZERO for when Thomas Kuhn’s mechanism starts to take hold and turn observation into a reductionist effort (towards a grand unified theory of poverty and power in cultures — AKA powerty in my shorthand).

Other insights on feedback loops from the conference

As a form of jargon filter, I decided I would only write things down if I could I illustrate them. Here are my sketches.

When you go into communities and ask people about things, such as “what are property rights,” most people have a murky understanding. A few are crystal clear and a few are utterly confused. science-feedback

We like to think about feedback loops as a set of discrete management events. But to the person we aim to serve, they are a cacophony of different people asking for things and never following up. (Mari Kuraishi)science-toyota-management

Toyota’s central management principle is this: Let the person closest to the problem have the power to fix things. This extends to changing policy, including calling for a recall. (Tim Ogden)

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