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In 2012, the United States Agency for International Development allocated $137 million to fund seven universities to create development labs to advance social/economic progress and reduce poverty. International economic development has become a booming field and industry but is also highly contested. The function of the university as a development strategy has great potential but can also be subject to criticism. This qualitative study included a visit to all seven universities and generated findings related to a development lab model and mentality, including: the importance of failure, knowledge co-creation, and the role of the academy in constructing culture.


There is a palpable and almost ubiquitous effort in higher education to be a world-class university (often defined by some version of global rankings). In the margins, universities are trying to address the world's biggest problems by incubating/accelerating the creation of solar suitcases, malaria [End Page 113] detection through magnets and cell phones, bicycle powered corn shellers, maternal health clinics, counterfeit drug detection technology, studies on crop development in conflict zones, and geocoded maps of development projects all over the world. All of these innovations have emerged out of the efforts of a small number of universities with development labs. Blending international development and university knowledge production led to a unique effort organized under a network established by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The notion of development as a path for societies to reduce poverty and promote economic and social productivity has involved higher education in divergent ways over the last 60 years. The bifurcated phases range from development banks systematically designing the disinvestment of public funds for higher education in the 1980s (Collins, 2011) to positioning higher education as a key economic and social driver in the knowledge economy (Task Force for Higher Education and Society, 2000). Partnerships between universities in developed and developing countries have also been supported through various forms of unilateral aid. For example, universities in wealthy countries use grants to partner with universities or communities in developing countries to advance specific aspects of a development agenda (e.g., health, agriculture, education). USAID, an agency that has funded hundreds of partnerships over the last 50 years, developed an innovative approach in the attempt to leverage university knowledge production to address global development issues. Hundreds of universities submitted applications to participate, and eight development labs at seven different universities were selected to utilize funds from a pool of 137 million USD. Although USAID outlined specific objectives, the labs that emerged were formed out of the character of institutions and scholars who have a long research agenda history with a specific development focus. This study is about the eight development labs and the ways in which their existence provides insight into the role of higher education in the development sector. The study is an exploration of what emerged as a lab mentality in university-based development work. I use the term lab mentality to explore the cultural structures and influences on the programs. Cultural structures are manifested through the ways in which universities/academic culture differ from traditional development agencies. The lab mentality emerged as something unique to the way the university-based development labs approached their work (e.g., a sense of freedom outside of the confines of corporate deadlines and government bureaucracies).

Related literature about development provides background and frameworks for understanding the study of the eight development labs. A brief history of development and an overview of key agents of development (e.g., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) combine to demonstrate [End Page 114] the socially constructed nature of development economics and the subsequent industry that formed around economic ideals. Higher education has been in and around the development industry since its origin. There are ideological anchors at both ends of a development spectrum that range from a technical approach to fixing poverty (Sachs, 2005) to the notion that development must be spontaneous and advanced through individual rights (Easterly, 2013). Lastly, a U.S./Western university model is examined for the benefits and challenges related to global relations, economic development, and social progress.

In this study of the eight development labs (at seven universities) funded by USAID, the guiding questions focus on the role of higher education at large and, more specifically, the cultural architecture and potential impact of development labs on global issues related to poverty and social progress. Cultural architecture is a term used to unpack how organizational culture and epistemological notions of development create a mental set of blueprints, passageways, and barriers that guide how individuals and groups make decisions. Findings from the study include key themes related to the role of the academy in constructing culture, knowledge co-creation, and the freedom to fail in a risk-tolerant laboratory environment.

Origins and Agents of Development

Development, in the context of poverty and international assistance, is a term used to indicate the process of allocating resources, services, and knowledge from an economy categorized as developed to an economy or region categorized as developing. The most prominent way of identifying a development status is through the Human Development Index, which is printed in the annual Human Development Report (United Nations Development Programme, 2015). In terms of a defining the broad purpose for development, Easterly (2013) writes:

The objective of development is developing the nation-state—that is, development in, by, and for individual countries—is so taken for granted that it is rarely even noticed. In the various phrases in development discourse—developing countries, underdeveloped countries, Third World countries—the discussion is usually about which modifier to use while the word countries is never questioned.

(p. 29)

Two key events in history worked to form the contemporary understanding of international development: Bretton Woods and Point Four of President Truman's 1949 Inaugural Address. The U.S. government invited 44 countries to Bretton Woods, NH, in 1944 as WWII was coming to a close. The motivation was to rebuild Europe and to create a fund that would prevent struggling [End Page 115] economies from dragging down strong economies in an increasingly global economic system (Goldman, 2005). The result was the formation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the foundation for what later became the World Bank.

In 1949, U.S. President Truman delivered an inaugural address and famously outlined Point Four:

Fourth, we must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas. For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve suffering of these people. The United States is pre-eminent among nations in the development of industrial and scientific techniques.

Truman's quote provides insight into the origins of development by constructing ideas about deficits in half of the world population as approaching misery while constructing the U.S. as the potential solution. The focus on knowledge, skill, and science would set up the development industry to have a natural connection with universities. Following the address, the International Technical Cooperation Act of 1949 was drafted and passed (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1949). The Committee on Foreign Affairs drafted a background report that outlined the background, purpose, and scope of the role of technical economic assistance for less developed countries. Even the report highlights the historical role of philanthropy in inter-country relations, but the combination of Bretton Woods and Point Four mark the beginnings of a technical approach to development. Following Point Four and the foundational words delivered by President Truman came the creation of a development industry in the U.S.

The development industry and community included economists, researchers, policy experts, civil and foreign services employees, and entrepreneurs. The institutions that house many of these experts are large development banks (World Bank, IMF), regional development banks (Asian Development Bank), unilateral aid organizations (United States Agency for International Development [USAID]), philanthropies (e.g., Gates Foundation), and think tanks (e.g., Brookings Institute).

Key agencies have progressed in their policies and practices, and an evolution of labels about regions like Africa, Asia, and Latin America emerged. According to Meier (1984), these regions have been described as "backward" and "rude and barbarous" in the eighteenth century, "underdeveloped" in the prewar period, to the current discussion of economic development as "less developed" or "developing economies" (p. 6). Structuralist economics [End Page 116] tried to remedy the problems associated with poverty or underdevelopment in the 1950s and 1960s by removing obstacles to growth in poor countries (Peet & Hartwick, 1999). By the 1980s, a key movement in development practice was the implementation of structural adjustment policies (SAPs) by the World Bank and IMF, which ultimately created difficulties in the public sectors of developing countries. SAPs included fiscal adjustment (including currency devaluation), trade liberalization, and movement toward free markets and away from state intervention (Easterly, 2006). Loan conditionality was the method by which these adjustments were enforced. Stiglitz (1999) highlights the fact that SAPs did not bring sustained economic growth, and the mistakes led to rising unemployment and increased poverty. During the 1980s, three-quarters of Latin American countries and two-thirds of African countries were under some form of World Bank/IMF structural adjustment supervision (Peet & Hartwick, 1999).

Universities were also impacted by the conditioned disinvestment of higher education under the SAPs of the 1980s and 1990s by the World Bank and IMF (Collins & Rhoads, 2010; Collins, 2011). However, unlike the World Bank and IMF in the first 40 yeas of development practice, USAID was allocating significant grants for U.S. universities to engage in development projects in the very same regions where universities were falling apart. USAID worked with U.S. universities on a variety of development projects. For example, Oklahoma State University (OSU) has a long history in Ethiopia that began only a couple of years after the Point Four plan launched. OSU agreed to act on behalf of the U.S. government as the carrier of the Point Four program through funding and programs (OSU, 1969). In the new millennium, the Bank returned to supporting higher education, citing the importance of the knowledge economy, while USAID funding for higher education waned from where it had been previously and is now renewed through the development labs project. Imbedded in the ebbs and flows of development funding are theoretical and ideological foundations that guide debates around whether or not primary or tertiary education is a better investment or whether or not trade with developing countries is superior to giving aid. The logic underpinning development decisions can weigh heavily the design of projects and institutions.

Ideological Anchors

Two primary development anchors serve to frame this study: the notion that there is a development design that can effectively reduce or even eliminate poverty as opposed to the notion that only a natural and locally born approach to development will effectively solve the most pressing issues in society. On one side of the spectrum, scholars like Sachs (2005) advocate [End Page 117] that a series of corrective actions related to wealthy country engagement and application of new knowledge in developing country settings can lead to a serious reduction in poverty. On the other side, Easterly (2013) maintains that development is a relatively new scheme that did not exist when current superpowers were rising to their position of dominance. Perhaps if developed nations achieved their status through particular components, then it is reasonable to assert those components are essential today, including: homegrown development, self-sufficiency, and human rights, which often gets overlooked as benefactors, technocrats, and dictators distribute humanitarian and development aid.

The End of Poverty

Sachs (2005) maintains that geographic and historical issues create a lethal combination of hot, dry, infertile, malaria endemic, and often landlocked regions that prevents productivity without a large investment. Sachs (2005) argues that if the rich world had committed $195 billion in foreign aid per year between 2005–2025, poverty could have been entirely eliminated by the end of this period.

Just as poverty indicators are subject to debate, various suggestions for poverty reduction as a global force have emerged. The literature in this area suggests two convergent points that can contribute to the reduction of poverty: advancing scientific and technical knowledge, and enhancing self-sufficiency. On the first point, Sachs (2005) identifies "knowledge capital," "the scientific and technological know-how that raises productivity in business output and the promotion of physical and natural capital," as something the poor lack (pp. 244–245). Ideas and knowledge can be shared and utilized over and over again. Natural resources are not the catalyst for growth. Instead, the knowledge of how to use such resources can have a tangible impact. The academic community is one location where knowledge development in science and technology can occur (industry is another location for this kind of development).

Tyranny of Experts

Conversely, Easterly (2006) describes the dominant development approach as technocratic and cautions that "aid cannot achieve the end of poverty … only homegrown development based on the dynamism of individuals and firms in free markets can do that" (p. 368). Knowledge created in developed countries by the private sector in response to market demands will rarely meet the challenges presented by developing countries (Easterly, 2006). A primary criticism of development economics theory and practice is that it is not rooted in the culture of that which it is attempting to assist. Africa is now poorer than it was during the late 1960s, when the IMF and the World Bank first arrived. According to Yunus (2003), "Concepts, institutions, and [End Page 118] analytical frames—the conditions—that created poverty cannot end poverty" (p. 250).

Although Sachs highlights the ways in which the poor were lacking (a deficit model), Easterly (2013) referred to development economics as a "technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements" (p. 6). The technocratic approach generally ignores the notion of rights for the poor and requires the expertise of those who are not poor. As a result, the poor were viewed as in of need more experts, as opposed to rights, which works to exacerbate the problem, as the technical issues are a symptom of the problem, not the root. In opposition to the technocratic approach, Easterly (2013) advocates for the benefits of "spontaneous solutions," which have been shown effective "in politics, markets, and technology" (p. 11). At the core of the autocratic versus individual spontaneous solutions are three components:

  • • Viewing regions as having a blank slate instead of within historical context.

  • • A focus on the well-being of nations as opposed to individuals and their rights.

  • • Conscious and technical design versus spontaneous solutions from local and individual problem solvers.

Following the logic of the three components and overemphasizing the national container as the place where development takes place, industry experts continue to overlook the rights of people. Easterly's (2013) primary point is that in the debate between technocratic/autocratic design and individual rights promoting spontaneity, "the only evidence we can find for this bottom-up story of innovation is—all of human history" (p. 279). Under the tyranny framework, development agencies and their associates (e.g., universities) should examine the contextual nature of approach, focus on human rights, and give attention to spontaneous design, which likely already exists but is not seen by traditional development experts.

Somewhere in the Middle

Banerjee and Duflo (2011) argue that much of the anti-poverty work of the development industry has not been successful. Efforts at social progress are not just vain, but perhaps too rushed, not careful enough, and lack attention to contextual details. There is no metadata that can provide a universal solution to poverty and no magical number of percent GDP growth that will transform a region into wealthy or developed. There is, however, "a body of knowledge that grows out of each specific answer and the understanding that goes into those answers that give us the best shot at, one day, ending poverty" (Banerjee & Duflo 2011, p. 15). The overarching theories of Easterly and Sachs are valuable on opposite sides of a spectrum and offer insights to [End Page 119] understanding the poverty puzzle. However, "the debate cannot be solved in the abstract" (Banerjee & Duflo, 2011, p. 4). The complex problem of poverty persists in confounding ways where some technological advances are useful, but the imposition of such technologies may invalidate their potential. Furthermore, if freedom is imposed, it fundamentally lacks the purest qualities of freedom. The role of universities in the development space presents the question of how to leverage knowledge production without becoming fuel for more technocratic design.

Incubating Ingenuity or Recolonizing through Expertise?

Colleges and universities have been storehouses and producers of knowledge for centuries, even as monasteries and temples faded from their central place in knowledge preservation in earlier times (Marginson, 2012). Higher education has found a place in contemporary society as an individual value, and perhaps to a lesser-known degree, as a public value. There are great examples of knowledge development in U.S. universities being applied to the world's greatest needs (e.g., Collins, 2012). However, promoting Western (particularly U.S.) models of education is troubled with complexities and creates epistemological issues (Collins & Mueller, 2016).

U.S. influence operates throughout international organizations, including the World Bank, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The elevation of U.S. universities as a model has had great appeal (cf., Clark, 2004), and some argue that Western notions of knowledge are at the core of almost every flagship university in the world (Marginson, 2013). Several scholars have examined U.S. models in international contexts with skepticism (Deem, Mok, & Lucas, 2008; Rhoads, 2011). For example Rhoads (2011) acknowledges significant accomplishments of the U.S. research university but highlights the ''deep-seeded problems that continue to undermine its potential social and cultural contributions'' (p. 3). Furthermore, an overemphasis on empiricism can diminish critical and philosophical sensibility to evaluate more complex social and cultural questions. U.S. universities have contributed to many varieties of development (ranging from militaristic to economic), but lack of commitment to critique exchanged ''dialogue and understanding for domination'' (Rhoads, 2011, p. 15). The paradox is that the U.S. model has done much to serve the needs of society, but has also exchanged service to the public good for corporate good in the name of entrepreneurialism (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004). Consequently, universities show potential for incubating novel and important ideas as well as colonial or militaristic tendencies. The origins of development, the ideological divide on development, and the complex roles of U.S. universities and leveraging knowledge for the benefit [End Page 120] of the public and/or the private sector regarding economic, militaristic, and poverty endeavors set the background for this study.


In an effort to explore a large, multi-million dollar grant project with sites all over the world, I used a broad case study design and approached the complex topic with specific contextual parameters (Flyvbjerg, 2013; Yin, 2003). The boundaries of the case I selected were the core institutions that were awarded a grant from USAID to be a development lab. Although many of the universities had numerous partner institutions and projects, I focused on the seven core universities that employed the primary investigators (PIs) for each grant. The guiding questions for the study were:

  1. 1. What is the function of higher education in the sphere of development?

  2. 2. What is the cultural architecture of a university development lab?

The first guiding question will broadly address the function and purpose of the labs to further expand upon the function of higher education in international development. The second question about cultural architecture is designed to evaluate the various cultural influences on the labs at the intersection of university academic culture and development industry culture (via USAID). The term cultural architecture is used to indicate there are many influences on the design, aesthetic, and function of a program or organization that provide complex layers to the priorities, outcomes, and fit utility for various populations. Stated differently, physical architecture impacts how well people can inhabit a space—cultural architecture impacts how well people, ideas, and knowledge influence and inhabit an intangible space.

Data Collection

Using qualitative methods and ethnographic tools, a variety of sources of information were used, including participant observation, interviews, and document analysis (including annual reports, assessments, published research articles, applications for the grant, and press releases). This study was conducted over the course of 18 months and was approved by an Institutional Review Board.

Site visits took place at all seven universities that hosted the eight development labs (listed in Table 1) where informal conversations, tours, demonstrations, and meals with students, faculty, and staff greatly informed my understanding of their work. Participants were recruited through contacts listed on program websites, and an information sheet detailing the study and the nature of participating in the study and requesting informed consent was distributed to participants. For a typical site visit, I studied publicly available [End Page 121] information about the lab and then made contact with a few key personnel at the lab and set dates for a visit (typically 3–5 days). Each visit included interviews with the lab leadership, faculty, staff, and students that were coordinated in advance via email and typically through someone who acted as a gatekeeper or correspondent at the lab. I was also given the opportunity to listen to presentations, tour facilities where innovations were on display, and observe faculty and student work. I tested bicycle powered machines, solar pumps for farmers, and saw the ingenuity behind electromagnetic elements in blood tests for malaria. I also reviewed relevant documents (e.g., funding proposals, annual reports, monitoring and evaluation schemas, student papers, publicity notices, and academic publications). In order to maintain anonymity, the findings do not include direct quotes from these documents.

Table 1. List of Development Labs.
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Table 1.

List of Development Labs.

[End Page 122]

However, the variety of documents allowed me to understand each lab in a different way and compare what was said in an interview with what was published. Each site visit was slightly different but provided an opportunity to learn about the key functions and cultures of the labs. The facilities were impressive and clearly high priorities at their respective institutions.

Following each site visit, I joined publication distribution lists for each lab and followed their work on social media to stay up to date with their work. A total of 35 formal interviews were conducted (29 audio recorded and transcribed verbatim, 6 recorded through taking copious notes). Participants were asked open-ended questions about the nature of their work and the value of extension. To better understand how participants construct reality and think about the topics presented, each interview was flexible in format. Each participant was assigned a marker (e.g., F1 for a faculty member, R1 for a non-faculty researcher, and S1 for staff) to maintain anonymity and demonstrate the diversity of participant voices quoted in the findings.

Analysis and Trustworthiness

The analytic strategy was inductive, deductive, and cyclical, as it was "organized chronologically, reviewed repeatedly, and continually coded" (Creswell, 2003, p. 203). All interview transcripts, field notes, and memos were compiled into Dedoose, a qualitative coding program, to organize the data and to assist in the application of consecutive rounds of coding. The first step in the analytic process was to identify major patterns in the participant interviews (Yin, 2003) that aligned with pre-existing themes connected to the literature review. The initial list of codes included: poverty reduction, program impact, knowledge creation, the role of USAID, and the notion of development universities. The second phase of analysis was to identify unexpected and emergent themes and recode all of the data.

Throughout the data collection and analysis process, various measures were used to enhance the trustworthiness of the findings from my perspective as well as the perspectives of the participants. I had continued engagement with the overall case; I was physically visiting the sites for a total of 30 days over the course of 18 months, but I also kept track of press releases, publications, and program advancements at each lab, even when I was not physically on site. Drawing from Lincoln and Guba (1985), I employed multiple approaches to triangulation and searched for discrepant cases that ran counter to the dominant narrative of each theme. The first approach, triangulation, is evidenced in the multiple vantage points within the case study. Triangulation involves the use of multiple sources to evaluate a phenomenon; three types of data triangulation (time, space, and person) were used in this study (Denzin, 1970). The central concepts of the study were evaluated at different points in time, with participants holding different roles and perspectives, and in various geographic locations. For example, in terms of time and space, [End Page 123] seeing all of the development labs over 18 months as I tracked their press releases and updates showed change over time. Triangulation of persons and perspectives emerged through interviewing faculty, staff, and students, with a variety perspectives and roles represented by each group. The discrepant findings were generated as part of the inductive strategy. The presentation and discussion of contrary information was designed to promote reflection on the complex reality of different perspectives. The deductive strategy was explicitly linked to the theoretical framework, which in turn provided clarity regarding the presuppositions that I brought to this study. Lastly, the findings are presented with lengthy quotes from the participants to ensure their voices provide thick and rich descriptions of the respective labs.

Role of the Researcher

Soon after college, I became a Peace Corps volunteer and was introduced to the world of international development. Although I was an outsider to all of the sites I visited, my role in the Peace Corps and as a professor gave me a sense of being an insider. Through a series of international experiences and numerous studies on international organizations (WTO, World Bank, and USAID), my perspective on the role of universities and development continues to evolve. Although I find concern with growing inequality and individualism around the world, I am ever cognizant of the ways in which the intent to help can be hurtful, and ultimately a recolonizing force. Both personally and professionally, I continue to interrogate the desire for development (Heron, 2007) and realign my work as part of a decolonizing project as it relates to higher education. The combination of these factors has greatly shaped my position within the study.


Higher education can be a viable strategy for promoting social and economic progress and reducing poverty, and the preceding quotes highlight the perspective of faculty members who believe in the university strategy. The Higher Education Solutions Network at USAID is described as "a partnership between USAID and seven top universities, designed to harness the ingenuity and passion of university students, researchers, and faculty to deliver the greatest impact and develop innovative solutions to global development challenges," with an intended purpose to "incubate, catalyze and scale new science and tech-based solutions" (USAID, 2016). Each development lab received between 10 and 25 million USD, depending on the nature of their proposal and design. Some universities had long-term development projects, personalities, and relationships that were translated into a proposal and then a development lab. Other universities used the opportunity to create new partnerships across academic disciplines. A few labs had very close relationships [End Page 124] to USAID and others were completely new to working with unilateral development assistance bureaucracy. This first section of the findings focuses on development lab culture and mentality by focusing on the degree to which higher education can play a role in development through workers and cultural influences on the labs. The subsequent themes in the findings explore components of the lab culture and mentality: 1) academy and cultural production, 2) co-creation of knowledge, and 3) the importance of failure.

Development Lab Culture and Mentality

Universities are a good strategy when compared to other development conduits, because there is a diverse eco-system of knowledge.


Universities are ideally on the frontiers of knowledge, where there are problems or inadequate methods, universities approach and figure out how to improve the gathering of relevant information or knowledge.


Higher education has a long history of interacting with the development industry. As outlined in the literature review, this has taken place through unilateral aid and partnerships between in universities in developed and developing countries. Universities were also impacted by development bank activities at a much higher national economic plan. Because the development labs sit at the intersection of a federal development aid program and universities, the key figures in those labs had important insights on the degree to which higher education can or should play a role in development. For example, a faculty member described higher education as "pivotal … transformative" and perhaps "necessary for economic development" (F5).

Even as the influential university role was acknowledged, participants highlighted that it has to be part of a larger, broader strategy. Higher education is not the single solution, but part of a social ecosystem with an important role for knowledge:

I think universities have a key role to play in global development … So in the global development space, I think some of the key gaps that have emerged over time would be a lack of data and science … So universities, as part of the ecosystem, are a critical component of how to drive global development.


The idea of higher education as a viable development strategy was also met with some criticism. Some thought it was too expensive because of the overhead required by universities and the rigid nature of the bureaucracies. Another faculty member said, "There's going to be something missing in the middle of the value chain that I don't think universities are well positioned to fulfill" (F10). Although he acknowledged that universities are great with knowledge production and educating students, there was still a missing element when translating into actual development practice and could possibly [End Page 125] be remedied by "more university to university exchange, more developing country to developed country exchange on the academic side" (F10).

Faculty spoke about academic freedom and the ability to be creative. Designers and development practitioners on staff spoke about the importance of innovation and the intellectual support of doing it at universities. One big advantage of higher education that was often highlighted was the learning environment and the energy and commitment of students. Among the eight labs, thousands of students have been involved in programs, classes, and development projects as a direct result of the labs being embedded at a university. Many of the labs have numerous examples of students who have gone on to start businesses, create new technologies, or have entered the development field.

Development labs had a range of personnel who were embedded in traditional development work. For example, some professors had previous grants with USAID and other labs hired support staff that knew how to navigate budgeting and assessment practices within USAID bureaucracy. Some labs reported educating students who were eventually hired in the development industry, making the boundaries between the academy and development industry more porous. One lab in particular was at an institution that placed a high value on the opinion of big development agencies and the corresponding grants, which funded a lot of activity at the university. At this particular lab, the overall project appeared to be less productive than the other seven labs due, in part, to the focus on pleasing USAID as opposed to engaging in academic and community-oriented work with great purpose. Throughout the findings, this divide between the academy and the development industry appears to be a component that makes the labs more or less susceptible to the characteristics outlined in the tyranny framework outlined by Easterly (2013).

Participants in the study had much to say about the role of USAID and the actual grant process. Many of the primary investigators had previous experience with the National Science Foundation or other federal grants and noted that "USAID has the highest level of direct contact, which creates high transaction costs for partner institutions—managing the award is very costly" (F2). Other participants who had significant familiarity with USAID's history commented that "HESN is definitely a very positive collegial atmosphere" and that the organization staff was praised for being flexible, responsive, and a breath of fresh air (F1). Still, other participants expressed fear that USAID would become more difficult to work with under a new administration or revert back to their old ways. The difficulty of working between the host university bureaucracy and USAID bureaucracy was identified as an expensive and difficult barrier to productivity and impact. As USAID is responsible to the U.S. congress, participants noted that they were constantly asked for "sound bites," "quick stories," "gizmos," and "whiz-bang technologies." A [End Page 126] researcher responded, "I think USAID wants a gizmo. They want some kind of technology that is cheap and somehow revolutionary—but that's not what we were hired to answer" (R2).

Although there were many comments about USAID, I designed the analysis to focus on the function of the labs in a way that would reveal a model and a mentality as potentially transferrable knowledge for higher education at large. Fundamental to the mentality was the perception of the role of higher education as a development strategy. One participant acutely reflected:

What is the role of the university in this new process? How are they distinct from USAID? Is USAID just channeling money out as if it is just another arm of USAID and do they play by the same rules in agriculture of USAID or do they play by university culture? What I have come to find out is that there are huge cultural differences in the research university and USAID.


Development lab employees and researchers looked beyond USAID to "create something that's more sustainable, recognizing that academic incentives aren't currently aligned towards first in class innovation for … development outcomes in poor countries" (S3). Another development lab staff member advocated, "We need academic researchers to understand things in some ways deeper than the development professionals" (S4).

The culture of universities in development and the cultural architecture of the labs in this study play an important role in how the work will manifest particular ideological anchors. For example, if universities drift toward becoming arms of established development agencies, then the benefits brought by the academy could be reduced. Furthermore, if the knowledge produced within development labs is delivered as expertise that fits within the framework of tyranny, then knowledge colonization will be reproduced. Tyrannical expertise can also manifest through denying epistemological diversity—something universities have a tendency towards through positivistic approaches and denial of the legitimacy and value of indigenous science (Collins & Mueller, 2016). The tension between the development industry and the academy will need to remain clear in order for universities to continue to play a decolonizing role in development. There are various colonial layers to university work, but when the university becomes an arm of an industry or even of the state, there is a greater propensity to align with the tyrannical disposition of experts. To highlight this idea further are three primary themes that emerge as the ways in which the academy brings significant value added components into development. Three primary components of the development lab model and mentality are explored in the remaining subsections: 1) academy and cultural production, 2) co-creation of knowledge, and 3) the importance of failure. [End Page 127]

Academy and Cultural Production

We just need the infrastructure to connect to all of those units on the university campus where they exist and tend to be top class for what they do. We need a glue to pull them together.


Our project is really meant to be multidisciplinary.


One theme that emerged out of an attempt to understand the perception of the role of higher education in development was a broad understanding of how the disciplines shape the academy and how the academy can shape culture. As a result, this theme refers to the academy as force in cultural production. Much of what is produced in the academy is not mainstream and may often be considered irrelevant to society at large, but the academy maintains the boundaries of codified and legitimated knowledge. Academic freedom, creativity, published records of knowledge production, and captive audiences of students are components of how the academy contributes to culture. In relation to development labs, an important focus on multi or interdisciplinary work emerged as a clear strategy to shape the academy and its ability to impact society.

One researcher went to great lengths to describe a large project focused on water supply in regions with water threats and noted that their research team "took a very technical attack" but also used "unusual" methods for studying engineering, including focus groups. He noted that,

What emerged over time was that this question of water supply wasn't just a technical problem. It was political and economic problems, an institutional problem … We were hammers and we were treating the problem like a nail. We just wanted to solve the water problem … We were only trying to see the problems as technical problems and we just infused technology to solve the problem … We need to be supporting people's struggles to get access to the resources by providing technical tools and technical expertise and mobilizing data to prove their point instead of focusing exclusively on technical procedures.


He explained the history between the people and the government in great detail, including how bureaucracy was a constant barrier to water access. In this example, the same technocratic approach critiqued by Easterly (2013) prevented the team from being able to see the larger problem. Conversely, research teams with diverse disciplinary and epistemological perspectives and co-collaborating with people embedded in the community can yield different results and open the door for spontaneous solutions and discovery.

At least two of the development labs were working in very distinct ways to generate new spaces in the academy. This generation often involved combining social sciences with hard sciences. One development lab team member [End Page 128] noted, "We call it development engineering as a discipline" and noted that it is beginning to achieve that status of being a subfield or sub discipline (S3). Given the culture of the academy, this is no easy task, especially as engineers traditionally have not "thought of themselves as interventionists although they definitely intervene through the introduction of technologies" (S3). Combining social scientists or adding a social science approach to a study was breaking new ground:

Very few of them [engineers] ever file a human subjects' protection protocol. Very few of them are pushed in the research design to anticipate impacts and risks to human subjects even if they are going to be doing fieldwork and interviewing users. So that's been a culture change.


This particular lab has had significant influence in creating new graduate programs and even an academic journal to continue the pursuit of a cutting edge multidisciplinary approach.

Another lab also focused on engineering and development; a researcher articulated that, "we need to work with social science as engineers design and then think it will work and we find we have not fully considered the users perception and behavior" (R10). They worked with faculty to develop solar pumps for farms and worked closely with farmers and social scientists to improve and optimize the design. Researchers and staff members talked about a latrine project and the need to overcome cultural beliefs for implementation and take into account the time available, strength, and size of women and children. One researcher described development engineering as an "academic innovation designed to focus on the developing world" that is ultimately "designed for the community and not the desires of prestige built into a system established by colonized education systems—it is decolonial engineering" (R10). Still, other labs noted that the challenge of changing academic culture and ultimately society is much bigger than "attaching a microscope to a cell phone" and that it requires multiple segments of knowledge creation to "engage higher education with a broader sector society for the benefit of society" (F6).

In this theme, culture functions on at least two levels—one within the lab and the other on the larger culture influenced by knowledge, innovation, universities, and development agencies. In the majority of the development labs was a clear recognition that the academy at large had something to do with influencing culture at large. The ways in which knowledge was legitimized in the academy plays a role in what is considered valuable or even expertise. Some development lab researchers demonstrated the pit falls of the technocratic and tyrannical approach of expertise while demonstrating a level of epistemic humility. Other examples from the labs demonstrated an important step in cross-disciplinary interaction, claimed a decolonial stance, [End Page 129] and pointed toward the importance of knowledge co-creation partnerships outside of the academy.

Knowledge Co-creation

We pride ourselves on being … unbiased, university branded experts that can talk about lessons learned from the field—and rightfully or not, people listen to what we say because it's [X University] and we've been doing this for a long time. (F11) With better data and analytic tools, the result will be better decision-making and/or better outcomes. It won't reduce poverty quickly, but evidence of what works will be a major contribution to the development community at large.


If the flow of knowledge is in one direction, there are knowledge producers and knowledge consumers. In the preceding quotes, the pride associated with being "unbiased … experts" highlights a mentality critiqued by Easterly's (2013) framework and suggests a single direction on the flow of knowledge. When the academy carries narrow definitions of "lessons learned" and "academic tools," it will promote expertise and alienate diverse epistemologies (Collins & Mueller, 2016). Among the eight core development labs and their many partner institutions, participants, and mini-grant recipients, there was a high degree of knowledge production underway. Latrine systems, chlorine dispensers, land tenure/crop selection, bicycle applications (e.g., corn shellers, cell phone chargers, wind mills, etc.) are among the many examples of innovative technology coming out of lab projects. There are various ways that labs either develop or support the development of these technologies. Sometimes, faculty and students are working on projects at the home institution, and they come to be supported by the lab and the grant. Other times, the primary investigator is working on a project or a team works full time with the lab. Most of the labs have some kind of mini-granting or competition process where they make broad calls for proposals to identify the best technologies for the problem areas on which the lab is most focused. Many of these winners are written about on the lab websites or blogs.

In addition to developing innovations internally or externally through various means, there are several labs that are generating or applying new methods. From ground-truthing to deliberative polling, there are new methodological approaches for how to produce new knowledge. Ground-truthing is a method that combines the use of remote sensors, satellites, cartography, and observations to explore topics like Chinese aid to the continent of Africa. Deliberative polling is a method of context rich consultation that gathers public opinion through polling that gives citizens greater levels of information while gathering their perceptions. One faculty member explained, we are, "using a different method, we are perfecting some method of research, but is it producing an innovation that can be adopted and solve a problem? Often not." (F4). In my search for innovations with the largest impact, the development [End Page 130] or expansion of methods was an unexpected but a very important finding, as the notion relates to the role of higher education in development and interdisciplinary thinking. This notion emerges to a greater extent in the theme of academy as cultural production.

Co-creation is generally a term that is applied when an academic and someone from the community or even an industry joins a project. In this case, it is about academics at the development labs working with people in developing regions of the world to produce new knowledge. In some labs, co-creation was a case of drawing in the best scientists and thinkers and having them work on a project, which was then applied in a real setting to disrupt and contextualize the innovation. One researcher reflected:

There is a lot of co-creation that happens. When we go to the villages the teams are supposed to work with the community members. So getting there and putting together the design process they [community members] find it empowering not just in finding out the problem but also when designing the solution. So there is a lot of empowerment that happens where respecting communities enough to be able to understand that they can design solutions to their own problems versus saying, "Oh, I know what is right for you. Here is how you should do this. Here is what is going to work."


In another example, a staff member recounted bringing a specific technology (like an oil press) to a community for the purpose of making a local resource a cash crop, and the community came back with ten recommendations on how the lab should improve the product. She continued, "They're really working hand in hand with the community which we call co-creation and that was I think the highlight of my trip seeing that actually happening" (S1). Other lab employees described similar sentiments. One employee noted, "the whole idea is that the university gets into the community and builds capacity for engagement" while another commented, "it is not marketing—it sitting and listening and continue to integrate the community voice—engagement is a key pillar in the lifecycle of innovations" (R9).

The idea of co-created knowledge was dominant in a few of the labs and more of an aspiration at the other labs. When discussing the role of collaboration and co-creation, one researcher explained:

People who live in that context and living in those communities that need technical support to solve their own problems—we need to get there somehow … We are coming at it from global statistics and then dropping it to a particular place. I think we need to reverse that. We need to build networks of academics here, over there, and link to community groups that have the problems and have the impetus to solve problems, and need support. We [should] only play a supportive role. We are playing too much of a leadership role now.

(R0) [End Page 131]

This salient description from one of the labs highlights the tension around knowledge production and application in the development mindset. Context is essential to knowledge production, and many of the world's most pressing needs cannot be addressed through decontextualized isolation. This tension also relates to the amount of time a project may be engaged in a certain region. The longer the engagement, the richer the context becomes, but many USAID grants (and other development funding) are for five years or less. Five years is a short timeline that can make knowledge production partnerships across borders difficult, unless a larger engine of motivation and university support is driving the project. Co-creation of knowledge is a key aspect that will either push development labs toward a traditional model of development, technocracy, and expertise or it will facilitate a recognition of knowledge that already exists in developing spaces and work to incubate existing knowledge and enter into equal, co-creating partnerships. The latter represents the best potential of a development lab mentality.

The Importance of Failure

We believe in failure first. We celebrate failure. Every innovator thinks an idea is their baby … Failure is an idea that comes from design thinking and needs findings—if you fail first, it is ok.


There is a lot of learning to be had for failure. Nobody publishes it. Nobody talks about it. We all publish our successes, but we could learn equally as much from failure.


In the domain of international economic development, many players invest large sums of money and have a high level of pressure to show results. Many of the researchers and staff employees at the development labs had previous foreign service jobs or worked in the NGO contracting sector. People coming from the development industry often reflected on a greater ability to navigate the USAID requirements and were able to compare the difference between the academic setting and the traditional development setting. In the traditional development setting, they reflected on the immense pressure to show results quickly in order to maintain donor support. For example, one researcher recalled having previously worked for the federal government where even he described that the "ability to take risks was fairly critical certainly because if my project doesn't work out I can't get funding and I get axed, that is it" (R5). Undoubtedly this kind of pressure shaped not on the experience of working in that setting but even the mental model the researcher brought to this new academic space. Similarly, those working in an NGO sector reflected on a restricted timeline with high demand for showing high impact results. Accordingly, NGOs are seen as responsible for delivering a known technology or solution but not having a culture of experimentation or acceptance [End Page 132] of failure. High performing NGOs may execute well but may not incubate well because of a different organizational and cultural architecture.

In general, the participants who spoke about the notion of failure at their development lab maintained that the ability to fail was critical to their project. For example, one researcher explained how the notion of failure plays a role in the organizational and cultural design of the lab:

We use data to try to understand where we can likely succeed in the future when there is a 90% chance to just completely fail, but if that 2% chance pans out, you can actually predict with high level of confidence where the [development] is going to be effective, without doing a whole bunch of more impact evaluations, then and we can revolutionize the way that we do things. We can take those types of risks, and if it fails, it is okay, which is really exciting.


On a more micro level was the idea of designing for failure in relation to the specific technologies and products being developed in the labs. Many innovations are coming out of lab-sponsored projects (e.g., chlorinating machines, ploughs, solar medical kits, etc.). One researcher noted, "We actively talk about technologies that will fail and you are admitting that what you are designing will fail somehow or the other" and that innovations must account for what will fail first so that solutions can be built into the design (R1).

At some of the host universities, there was a feeling that the notion of failure did not exist in the university culture, even though it was necessary and sustained in the lab. For example, one researcher noted that higher education systems have to "begin to think of themselves about failing forward" and advocated, "What we learn from those failures helps create a culture where it's okay to talk about that. We've got to start thinking about how we create this system where our faculty feels like they have that freedom" (R7). The philosophical tone related to failure was communicated as a core value for many of the participants, including the primary investigators who initiated the projects. According to one faculty member, "Winners can be grown and losers can die safely in a lab," and they added that "The space to fail is the space to discover" (F7).

The theme of failure also took on a more critical tone, especially as it relates to what is deemed a failure. In the world of international relations and development, the term failed states is used to demarcate societies that are not functioning well. One faculty member went to great lengths to explain how their lab approaches working in developing societies and their efforts to support the growth of institutions within those societies. She explained a holistic perspective where their team looks at a situation and says, "They haven't failed, the ecosystem changed" (F8). Similarly, within their lab approach, they have a team that exists without an execution-oriented mentality under constrained timelines. Their lab is trying to incubate a group who can [End Page 133] "create something in ten years that can solve more people's problems without them falling apart" (F8). Beyond the category of success or failure was the question of success or failure for whom. One vignette from a staff member highlighted the tension between learning goals and development outcomes in reference to a student group that became frustrated and stumbled through a complex problem and a poorly conceived product but learned a lot about development in the process. The staff member noted that a few students who learn in the absence of any benefit to the intended community begs the question, "Sometimes [student] participants learn a lot more from a failure and the community gets really pissed off and what do we call that internally? Is that a success or a failure for us?" (S2)

The question of success or failure is one of great consequence, perhaps much more than the participant even intended. Although failure is clearly a component of the lab model and mentality I am reconstructing in this article, this question refocuses on the direction of impact and the centrality of benefit. Development is always at risk of being industry oriented and a benefit for the experts to a greater degree than to those for whom it was designed.

The last note about failure is related to the role of USAID. In general, participants perceived that the development lab idea was in many ways a promoter of freedom, incubation, and innovation. However, some participants did not attribute those perceptions to USAID, even though it was the award grantor and regulator. One researcher said that freedom within USAID is "questionable" and noted, "I never sensed it. I felt that there was a double message and I know a lot of people at the lab did too" (R6). The nuanced perspective serves as a reminder that even though the well-funded notion of a development lab originated with USAID, it is still a government bureaucracy born out a short history of development as an industry. Although USAID is not the primary focus of the study, its role as both a supporter and regulator was mentioned frequently, and there was a mixture of perceptions about its effectiveness. In general, the role of failure in the multiple ways it emerged was an unexpected finding but also a core component of the development lab mentality. Furthermore, the skepticism about the role of failure in USAID as a traditional development agency and the promotion of failure within an academic laboratory mentality highlights another component that can help prevent the expert mentality that may be a burden to social progress.

Discussion and Conclusion

Drawing from the theoretical anchors and the perspectives of the participants in the study, there is a well-articulated function and benefit to the inclusion of higher education in development activity, as well as possible pitfalls. Greater imaginative possibilities of higher education have been [End Page 134] articulated for many decades from broad and high level perspectives. For example, Kerr's (1963) focus on the multiversity situates faculty and student roles to be connected to public works and even a public authority (which is also subject to the tyranny of experts' critique). Marginson (2012) goes further in theoretical depth to expand the ways in which universities can provide public good and highlights the profound need for a public purpose in higher education. The benefits emerging from development labs are driven by a capability to leverage knowledge production toward certain regions of the world with high level challenges related to health, social well-being, and poverty. The evaluation and monitoring culture that has developed in many sectors, including development and higher education, is not congruent with a greater understanding of public good because of the lack of agreed upon methods to measure public good. For example, according to Bowen (1977),

The outcomes from research and public service cannot be measured with any precision, and so conclusions will inevitably be subjective and judgmental. It is possible, however, to describe these activities in some detail. Indeed, a mere recital of them strongly suggests they yield important benefits.

(p. 291)

Perhaps the greatest contribution toward alleviating issues related to social progress and poverty will come from universities established in regions where those issues are embedded with secondary support coming through collegial partnerships in more developed regions (e.g., development labs). Furthermore, an in-depth recital and understanding of those benefits is essential for developing a way to advance and leverage the work of higher education for public good. Generating robust benefits will likely require more than an isolated five-year project, though many of the development labs had collaborative relationships and trust established prior to the formalization of the lab.

A potential hazard emerges from a tendency to decontextualize the problems, delink them from history and geography, and to contribute narrow versions of Western legitimized expertise that will be irrelevant at best and colonial at worst (Easterly, 2013). The notion of the ivory tower can devolve into a watchtower when applying expertise in a rigid fashion (cf. the history of the World Bank and IMF). If attention is given to the pitfalls of development and the potential hazards for higher education, then the components of the development lab model and mentality have a greater chance of being effective.

The first guiding question for the study was: What is the function of higher education in the sphere of development? At best, higher education has something to offer the multi-billion dollar practice of development and the theoretical notions that underpin the practice. Universities are clearly a source of knowledge production and offer an environment for knowledge production [End Page 135] that is distinct from private corporations, government bureaucracies, or NGOs. Efforts at social progress with broad public benefits are squarely within the public purpose that should be imbedded in higher education.

If universities are only viewed as another outlet for producing "gizmos" or "whiz-bang technology" (as stated by participants in the study) and not for the larger culture of the academy, then the function and benefit of higher education in development becomes diminished. However, it is often the academic freedom to pursue something obscure, the freedom to fail in a laboratory, and the freedom to integrate knowledge in a way that seems irrelevant that produces innovation. The culture of the academy may be frustrating to the larger development industry, but the precise source of the frustration likely produces a new element to the ecosystem of understanding development. If higher education professors and researchers subscribe to the technocratic notion that their positivistic outlook produces objective knowledge and then applies that knowledge in a decontextualized setting with the appearance of expertise, then the function of higher education in development will be another layer of tyrannical experts engaging in knowledge colonization. External funding will always be a draw for university researchers, but if the funding is detached from work that is meaningful and calibrated to the strengths of academic contributions, it will become another layer of aid that does not impact poverty.

The second guiding question was: What is the cultural architecture of a university development lab? In short, most of the eight labs had an ethos of rigorous study, cross pollinating disciplines, educating students, understanding contexts, collaborating with community, and combining all of that to either produce or uncover a way promote social and economic progress. Many times the labs simply found a student or community based organization that had an idea, and the labs facilitated connections with the best minds in the world to solidify and scale those ideas. This ranged from maternal health clinics in Kenya to students in Uganda developing a new way to quickly detect and diagnose malaria. Many of the PIs, the founders and leaders of the labs, were relentlessly committed to doing something grand, inspiring, and long lasting through the development lab. They inspired people to work in their labs, educated students, and created networks of people working on the world's largest problems.

The cultural architecture of most of the labs was innovation and harnessing knowledge for a global public good. However, also embedded in the cultural architecture were cornerstones of university and USAID bureaucracy. Though pragmatic, there was at least one case when service to the bureaucratic master overtook the fierce drive to leverage knowledge to reduce poverty through a specific discipline or approach. Part of the architecture of the labs in this study was the relationship from lab to USAID, university, and outside constituents. [End Page 136] In most cases the lab director was the primary link between the lab and a variety of social and professional networks. Directors with a history of a strong agenda that were able to exist above and beyond USAID and their own universities had a center of power that constructed the direction and focus of the work beyond outside forces. Conversely labs that had turnover in their directors or less direction were more subject to the culture of USAID and/or their university. The downside of a culture driven by a personality is that the lab can literally or figuratively leave with that individual, unless the director is able to transfer their status to the meaningful work of the lab.

Many of the U.S. land grant universities have a long history of engaging in development work across borders. The universities and the labs in the study are of great reputation and are engaging in productive and globally important work. There are elements of the three thematic findings that can enhance university efforts to grow from a project or a faculty interest to a development lab:

  • • Combining various approaches to science (e.g., social and engineering) has shown great promise for divergent thinking. However, the university is a dominantly Western institution that promotes Western forms of legitimated knowledge. Knowing that the culture of the academy can shift and can also impact society, interdisciplinary work should go beyond combining academic disciplines and come to mean epistemological diversity and honoring the indigenous forms of knowledge that came before Western science (Collins & Mueller, 2016).

  • • Leveraging the knowledge production capabilities in and with the communities that are perceived to be in need is necessary for knowledge production to be a move toward self-sufficiency as opposed to knowledge consumption. Co-creation also means co-identification of the problem, co-research, and even co-authoring the results.

  • • A focus on the importance of failure should be rooted in a critical notion of what failure or success means for what constituency. An intellectual willingness and curiosity to sift through many ideas is essential, knowing that failure is a key aspect of discovery.

A development lab rooted in these three components that draws upon the brilliant minds and efforts at universities around the world does not require a grant from USAID or from the development industry at large. In fact, dependency on a grant from a development agency may hamper the work. A development lab can be a unit that decides to harness existing resources to focus on global impact and consciousness. The cultural architecture of the lab must have constant awareness of tendencies toward ivory tower expertise and its pitfalls. Similar to the critiques of Sachs (2005), there are many projects and programs emerging from universities that can impact great change [End Page 137] but should not be viewed as an objective technical solution or become at risk of the tyrannical expertise outlined by Easterly (2013). Perhaps in the future, the notion of development labs will exist in many places in diverse ways and perhaps evolve into development universities (Fredua-Kwarteng, 2015), which currently exist in the margins. Development labs can form into development universities if the lab mentality involves resistance to universities becoming fuel for a technocratic engine that ignores the value of co-creation, context, and spontaneous solutions.

Christopher S. Collins

Christopher S. Collins is Associate Professor of Higher Education at Azusa Pacific University. He studies the role of higher education in diverse contexts and has published in the Journal of Higher Education, the Review of Higher Education, Higher Education, and several other journals. In 2017, with co-author Alexander Jun, he published the book: White Out: Understanding White Privilege and Dominance in the Modern Age (Peter Lang Publishing Group).


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