A Boom in Development Research

One little-discussed aid and development sector has bloomed in recent years: development research. With a push for accountability and improved data from New York University's Bill Easterly, and innovative research methods from academics such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Esther Duflo, research is one of the fastest growing sectors in development. The book that might become its bible, "Knowledge to Policy" by Fred Karden, hits bookstores this week.

But what exactly is development research? There are at least three varieties:1. Researching the developing world: Designers of development programs and policies need to better know what's needed to be able to tailor programming. Researchers from both developing and rich countries examine the situation on the ground and report back. One leader is the Canadian government-backed International Development Research Center, which finances developing world researchers to study issues that are crucial to their communities, including environment, technology, innovation and social policy. The organization also builds local research capacity. Another is the Paris-based Agricultural Research Center for Developing Countries, or CIRAD. This remains the smallest slice of the research sector.

2. Impact measurement: This involves evaluating the effectiveness of development programs. Because of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, this is where much of the research is focused, and it's starting to reach a wider audience. One well-known example is Madrid-based Dara's Humanitarian Response Index. Only a few years old, the HRI is already making an impact. The highly regarded Global Development Network is doing good research too, and sponsored the recent Cairo Conference on evaluating development effectiveness.

3. How 1 and 2 can be used to influence policy. This is the newest area of research and probably the fastest expanding. The 2008 report from the Policy Studies Institute provides a good overview. But it's the Overseas Development Institute's Research and Policy in Development arm that is doing some of the best work in the field. One of its studies found that despite clear evidence about what causes HIV/AIDS in Africa, the crisis deepened in many countries because of donors' reluctance to implement the research findings into their programming. A links page on the RAPID site connects to dozens of other research outfits, like Harvard's Center for International Development, the Duke Center for International Development and Institute of Development Studies.

Keep in mind that this is only a very cursory survey of the research field. If you're thinking about a career in development research, note that the RAPID team is not a bunch of wizened academics and technocrats but veteran field workers who are putting their experience to good use. Also, IDRC offers a training and awards program for researchers from Canada and the developing world.

Or you can always take your own initiative, like veteran aid worker Tori Hogan. Her aid travelogue, "Beyond Good Intentions," recently examined a study by MIT's Poverty Action Lab in India.

About the author

  • David Lepeska

    David has served as U.N. correspondent for the newswire UPI and reported for several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Newsday. He was chief correspondent for the Kashmir Observer in Srinagar, India, and regularly contributes to the Economist, among other publications. Since 2007, David has reported for Devex News from Washington, New York, as well as South Asia.