• Science and NGO practice: Facts and figures

    Anita Makri


Speed read

  • Scientists and NGO practitioners have little chance of interaction

  • But partnerships could tackle challenges such as ensuring the delivery of antimalaria bednets

  • Social media and open access can help researchers to engage directly with practitioners

What does science have to do with NGO practice? Anita Makri explores where they overlap and what stands in the way of fruitful collaboration.

Fundraising appeals and aid workers delivering food or medicine in poor countries might be the general public's image of international development in the global North — but it belies the range of activities helping to reduce poverty, improve well-being and raise living standards.

International development is difficult to define and means different things to different people. Though it includes aid provided by governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), development is a long-term process involving technologies, practice guidelines, interventions, technical knowledge, policymaking, investment, private and public enterprise, management expertise and local civil society.

Like development, the term science covers many concepts and activities. It can refer to the scientific method, research that may or may not be academic, natural or social sciences, and basic, applied, field or participatory research.

So, unsurprisingly, the relationship between science and development practice is also difficult to define.

Much scientific research is not directed at development challenges. But research can inform — and question — development work, while applied science puts knowledge to practical use through technology or new interventions (for example in medicine).

Specifically, natural scientists working in research institutions and NGO development practitioners are stakeholders in several development sub-sectors — whether that's health, agriculture or disaster reduction. Their work is relevant to each other, especially as funders increasingly look for documented evidence of demand and impact. [1] But they tend to move in different circles with limited opportunities for interaction let alone for collaboration.

On the ground with NGOs

The UN defines NGOs as private organisations that are independent from government control. They are often classified based on orientation (such as service provision, emergency relief activities or empowering poor people) and level of operation (such as community-based, national or international) but vary tremendously in size and location, sector, objectives, philosophical or political position, interests and perspectives, and in how they work. Some development NGOs focus on emergencies while others focus on long-term development. Some campaign while others transfer technology. Some are religious and others secular. And some do limited research while others have research as their primary activity (Box 1).


Box 1. NGOs in the world — at a glance
The Global Journal [2] reports that:

The number of NGOs operating worldwide is estimated at up to ten million.
The number of international NGOs accredited by the UN has risen from 40 in 1945 to 3,536 in 2011.

NGOs with development and humanitarian remits dominated the top-ten in an analysis of 450 such organisations working across a range of sectors in 27 countries. Ranking was based on each organisation's impact, innovation and sustainability.

Development was the best represented sub-sector in this sample, followed by health, education, children and youth, environment and peacebuilding. About a third of these NGOs are based in the United States, and a third in developing countries, mainly in India, Brazil and Kenya.

The US-NGO alliance Interaction estimates that on food security alone, 45 US-based NGOs have 1,025 active projects in 79 countries — with 88 of these located in Bangladesh, 65 in Ghana and 42 in Ethiopia . [3]


The gulf between development-as-aid and the broader set of activities contributing to economic and social advancement is reflected in the contested role of NGOs. These organisations are often criticised for focusing on projects and agendas that are politically influenced by economically advanced countries — traditionally North America and Europe, but increasingly also the BRICS countries. There is sometimes a tension between NGOs located in Northern or industrialised countries and those based in the global South.

Development NGOs that focus on practical work usually implement programmes that deliver 'basic' services in countries with high poverty and poor public infrastructure. This might involve installing wells to provide safe water, establishing schools or health clinics. By carrying out awareness campaigns or communicating targeted messages (for example about disease prevention or women's empowerment), NGO staff may help local people improve health and well-being.

Some programmes are designed to encourage changes in behaviour (sexual health programmes, for example) or deliver education and training (perhaps about improving agricultural practices to boost productivity). In head offices, large NGOs may lobby donor governments, conduct research to improve development practice, or run campaigns to influence policy decisions on priorities that support their work.

Whether running campaigns or engaging with communities on the ground, day-to-day work for many development practitioners bears little similarity to scientific work. But there is more common ground than first meets the eye.

A role for science

Science and technology have real relevance for NGO development practice when they involve improving infrastructure, communications and logistics (initially, in many cases, a by-product of military research), delivering practical innovations, and evaluating project impacts for aid agencies. Some NGOs encourage partners or communities to use scientific knowledge and tools, while others use science themselves.

Often, NGOs deliver established tools and interventions developed from scientific advances. (Table 1) Health and medicine offer numerous examples — antibiotics, vaccines, nutrition guidelines, water purification technologies and insecticide-treated mosquito nets. And in farming, examples include high-yielding and drought-resistant seed varieties, integrated pest management, and a rinderpest vaccine. [4–8]

Much of the knowledge that feeds into development projects comes from the natural sciences. For instance, infectious disease research has tested the effectiveness of hygiene behaviours; and the science of micronutrients, food supplements and fortification underpins nutrition guidelines.

New information and communication technologies (ICTs) are changing both how NGOs work (for example shifting from hierarchies to networks), and what they achieve. Mobile phones can warn of impending disasters or deliver healthcare messages. Online mapping and remote sensing can contribute to better governance — examples include Map Kibera (online mapping of Kibera informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya) and monitoring for human rights abuses. And with GIS (geographic information systems) and remote sensing, NGOs and governments can manage complex information about resource allocation, including food aid and disaster management.

Development practitioners also interact with scientific knowledge 'on the ground'. They become agents who apply scientific knowledge — delivering innovations, perhaps building local technical capacity through training or facilitating behaviour change. And they transfer knowledge to people working in local institutions, further contributing to capacity building. [9]

Some NGOs act as critics or watchdogs for scientific and technological innovations such as
genetic modification, synthetic biology or nuclear power. In other cases, NGOs innovate or support innovation by piloting technologies, farming methods or renewable energy sources, [4] — though there are questions about effectiveness, and how well the evidence for success is evaluated. A small number specialise in using and promoting technology and engineering to reduce poverty.

An estimated one per cent of the US non-profit organisations involved in international development work focus on science and technology. [10] But statistics about the NGO sector are incomplete, and the data available provide little insight into the resources dedicated to research or technical expertise for development NGOs.

Table 1. Examples of food security and health projects featuring science and involving major NGOs

Project name

Project objective, location & reach

S&T input


"JENGA JAMAA II" — Building the Strength of Communities in Fizi, Uvira and Kalehe Territories, South Kivu Province


Sustainable reduction of food insecurity among vulnerable households — 62,000 farmers, women, and children under five years old in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Agricultural techniques such as weeding and turning under of crop residues to reduce field burning; identification and removal of crops exposed to plant disease, most importantly cassava mosaic virus


Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA)[a]

The Burkina FASO ("Families Achieving Sustainable Outcomes") Program


An integrated sustainable approach to address all three types of food insecurity (chronic, seasonal and transitory) — 293,165 households in Burkina Faso

Food rations to prevent malnutrition (high-energy corn soy blend, oil, bulgur and lentils); use of certified, improved seed varieties and conservation agriculture through demonstration plots; tools and training to encourage use of 'Zai', a traditional small-planting-basin technique for improved water management

Catholic Relief Services (CRS)[b]

Bangladesh Multi-Year Assistance Program (MYAP), "Nobo Jibon"


Reduction of food insecurity and vulnerability over five years — 191,000 households in southern Bangladesh

Micro irrigation yechnologies; integrated pest management; intercropping and crop rotation

Save the Children[c]

Sustainable Nutrition and Agriculture Promotion (SNAP) Program


Reduction of chronic malnutrition — 400,512 children under five years of age in Sierra Leone

Food rations to prevent child malnutrition (oil, bulgur and lentils); biosand filters for water purification; training on nutrition; construction or rehabilitation of pit latrines


Social Mobilization Network (SMNet)


Eradicating polio in hard-to-reach areas of Uttar Pradesh, India

Collection of data on household immunisation status; community mapping of immunisation needs; working with vaccinators to overcome resistance to immunisation; production of communication materials including 'science of polio' video; promotion of healthy behaviours

US-based CORE Group and local NGOs, with UNICEF[e]

aADRA DRC — JENGA Final Evaluation Report (TANGO, 2011)
bProgram FASO (CRS, 2012)
cMaking diversified markets work for the poor (IDE, accessed 2013)
dSierra Leone — Sustainable Nutrition and Agriculture Promotion (SNAP) Program (ACDI/VOCA, 2011)
Coates E. A. Successful Polio Eradication in Uttar Pradesh, India: The Pivotal Contribution of the Social Mobilization Network, an NGO/UNICEF Collaboration. (Global Health: Science and Practice, 2013


Seeking evidence

The role of applied science in NGO development practice also has to do with evidence — gathering and analysing data, and using empirical knowledge in all areas that underpin development.

Assessing effectiveness is a key part of development projects, so evidence gathering is an important task for development practitioners. They often use monitoring and evaluation (M&E) techniques to identify what works and to document the impact of their work, so supporting organisational learning. M&E involves tasks such as routine tracking of inputs and outputs (money, or time for example, and things produced, such as reports or projects) and linking results to the interventions. [11]

Some NGOs measure their impact using academic methods such as randomised controlled trials — an approach criticised, however, for focusing on narrowly defined questions and failing to capture the complexity and context of NGO work. [12–14] But even when flawed, M&E gives donors some picture of what works and what doesn't, so helping ensure accountability and transparency.

Scientific knowledge matters in campaigning too: NGOs involved in discussing policy priorities, and those lobbying to influence decisions about funding or development goals, often marshal science and statistics to support their cause. Development NGOs also need to know the scientific consensus, uncertainties and controversies surrounding development issues as these influence their contracting or consulting opportunities.

Different approaches

But there are fundamental differences in how NGO practice and natural science function when it comes to development.

In part, these differences have to do with theories of knowledge (epistemologies) and how knowledge is produced, shared and used. And in part, they have to do with institutional culture, accessibility of information, operational approaches and styles of learning and discourse (Table 2).

Table 2. Some differences between science and NGO practice

Natural and applied science

Development NGO practice

Relies on values such as objectivity and the pursuit of fact and truth.

May accept or embrace the scientific method, but often reflects political and social interests that most natural scientists would separate from their work.

Aims to identify generalisable rules and variables that can be used to predict outcomes.

Strives to solve specific problems in specific settings.

Uses learning tools such as abstract theory, experimental methods and complex analytical techniques.

Tends to limit learning activities to the context of specific programmes in the real world — testing a theory of change or model of causality, for example.

May not have immediate, tangible consequences — producing evidence is a collective, iterative and open-ended process associated with incremental, abstract notions of progress.

Tends to operate with a more pragmatic focus on evidence that is time-specific and targeted at real needs on the ground — how to get a job done more effectively.

Values debate based on authoritative opinion that reflects breadth and depth of academic knowledge.

Embraces discourse that may be participatory, consensual or hierarchical, with deference to authority.

Needs first to be published, tested through applications in different contexts, then commercialised and marketed.

Relies on communicating success or failure, and forming policy or strategic assumptions through impact evaluations and informal publications.

Communicated with information that is often complex — with hidden assumptions and sophisticated methods — and far-removed from practice.

Needs information that is easily accessible, clear and linked to action-based research.

Operates in a system that rewards peer-reviewed publishing in prestigious journals, which gives scientists little incentive to conduct work that responds directly to practical needs. But may involve action-oriented research.

May include research capacity to evaluate programmes, support advocacy, and produce institutional knowledge — but tends to favour evaluation of short-term needs over long-term, in-depth research and reflection on previous operations.

Sources: [15–17]

Not everyone sees these differences as a deep divide. They are, perhaps, less distinct in the social sciences and participatory research methodologies that have influenced development practice in recent decades. But on the whole, the natural sciences operate through scepticism whereas development is driven by a belief in progress. And NGOs' need to move fast and pragmatically contrasts with research institutions' tendency towards thorough analytical assessments.

This is reflected in the time frame in which knowledge is produced and used. A technology being developed today will only become available, perhaps, to the practitioner years later. GPS (global positioning systems) devices and maps that monitor refugee movements, for example, or track down children in need of the polio vaccine, are the fruits of years of scientific investment.

Nevertheless, NGO practitioners do engage with scientists, and vice versa. Collaborations may be joint projects or use of expert advisers, dialogue about scientific information, fieldwork facilitation and training; and they may be donor funded or commissioned by NGOs.

But such projects can be difficult to broker and tend to cost more than traditional research.
They may also come up against issues such as dealing with controversial results, access to information held by NGOs, and quality assurance. [1] How partners perceive each other's role can also become an obstacle — practitioners may dismiss the lack of practical experience of an academic scientist or, conversely, adopt a deferential attitude to their expertise. [16]

Two-way benefit

There are real obstacles to making such collaboration work — and the 'pessimist's' view suggests power and resources as key motivating factors in joint projects.

Optimists, on the other hand, might say that maintaining the divide means missing opportunities to leverage expertise, share evidence and benefit from the different knowledge that scientists and practitioners generate. [1] NGOs can complement or co-produce academic research by being a link to the beneficiaries of that research. And they may support exploratory projects to test ideas, or even have answers to academic research questions. On their part, academics can provide analytical capability, support NGOs in training, encourage innovation, or help 'translate' existing knowledge into practice.

Pragmatic reasons for collaboration might include gaining access to research funding (for NGOs) and fulfilling social responsibilities (for universities). A realist would generally look at joint projects as a way to respond to evolving trends, ideas and new technologies. [1, 18]

Experience and studies suggest that collaboration can spark innovation in addressing real needs. The grassroots innovation movement, for example, shows that
technologies developed or adapted at the grassroots level offer a range of solutions in low-resource environments where infrastructure is poor and basic services such as electricity are in short supply. Knowing these limitations, or constraints, can change how a scientist works and what they produce. But on the whole, there is little knowledge about the tangible benefits to local people — or about how collaborations work between Southern research institutions and NGOs. [1]

There are certainly timely challenges that could benefit from partnerships between natural scientists and NGO practitioners. Delivery, for example, is a missing piece in development: there are plenty of technologies and science-based interventions, such as anti-malaria bednets, but they often go unused because putting them in the hands of people who need them is difficult. The
science of delivery and implementation has not received as much attention as the policy decision has.

And even where tools are available, infrastructure may not support them. Delivering food or healthcare to remote populations depends on roads and cold chains; and using laptop computers to coordinate operations depends on electricity and communications infrastructure (though innovations like mobile phones get around some such limitations).

Ways to work together

A step towards bridging the divide between the natural sciences and development practice could be initiatives that link funding to collaboration. Such a step will require negotiation to accommodate different working processes, interests, ideologies, assumptions and languages. [15] Similarly, efforts to align goals and priorities will need to involve discussion about who decides what those priorities might be.

Case studies involving partnerships between academic scientists and NGOs (that don't necessarily use knowledge derived from the natural sciences) suggest some ingredients for success — willingness to engage in a long and time-consuming process of learning, for one, and appreciating
different ways of working, types and timescales of deliverables, depths of analysis required in projects, and donor expectations. [1, 18] Effective collaborations rely on clarity about goals and each partner's agenda and perspective, along with a willingness to adapt and "learn how to learn together". [16]

Partnerships will also need to acknowledge that, just as medical aid can be misconstrued as a military objective, [19] the political nature of development work may potentially distort the scientific process. However, when it comes to policy and applications in development, science cannot operate in a vacuum — the evidence gathered depends on factors such as which discipline is being researched, which theories are being tested, whose questions are listened to, and who has been consulted in the process of answering them.

This makes it important that collaborative projects forge strong links with local governments, if they are to build capacity to produce and use knowledge. Stakeholders in the global South can work to proactively shape research agendas, and engage with issues such as data access and power differentials in research collaboration. Stronger representation in funding committees and advisory groups is one way to facilitate this. [1]

Changes in how science is communicated could also help overcome some of these limitations. The open access movement and proliferation of science blogging have opened up spaces for researchers to engage directly with practitioners in developing countries who could benefit from scientific knowledge. And with social media, there are new opportunities for the global South to drive, and challenge, development dialogue. [20] Regardless of the medium, scientific information will be most effective when targeting the specific needs of NGOs and decision-makers, whether that relates to setting agendas or implementing projects.

Opening channels for systematic feedback between NGO development work and scientific research projects or policy discussions can help link bottom-up and top-down development agendas. Recognising common ground is just the first step.

Anita Makri is SciDev.Net's opinion and special features editor. She writes a blog, un-weavings, about issues in global health, environment and development.

The author would like to thank Andrew Scott, Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, and Barbara Harriss-White, Emeritus Fellow and Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at the University of Oxford, for their comments on early drafts of this article


Applied science: Research that deals with practical applications of scientific knowledge — usually engineering and technology development. There may be feedback between basic and applied science in research and development activities.

Basic science: Study or research with the primary aim of increasing knowledge or improving understanding, rather than specific applications or products. 

Civil society: A network of institutions, independent from government, representing the interests and values of citizens and community groups. The term refers to range of non-governmental and not-for-profit organisations including NGOs, indigenous groups, charitable organisations, faith-based organisations and foundations.

Empirical: Refers to evidence, data or knowledge — derived from observation, experimentation or experience, rather than logical or mathematical assumptions — which can be verified or disproved.

Field research: Research that involves collecting primary data outside of a laboratory or office using methods such as interviews, surveys, collective discussion, participation in a group or direct observation. Qualitative methods are often used, but may include quantitative work.

International aid: Assistance in the form of funds, goods or services given to a country voluntarily by another country or by a multilateral institution. Development aid is generally given by developed to developing countries and may include official assistance or private donations.

International development: There is no universally accepted definition, but is usually linked to human development — efforts to reduce poverty and improve living conditions. It refers to a long-term process and encompasses several issues such as health, governance, education and disaster preparedness. It is distinct from the more short-term operations in disaster relief and humanitarian aid.

Iterative process: A method of processing and achieving a result that relies on repeating a process, analysis or cycle of operations. Each cycle is called an iteration, where the results of one iteration are used as the starting point for the next one. 

M&E (monitoring and evaluation): The systematic collection of data on specified indicators that are used to determine progress, achievement of objectives and the overall impact or significance of a development activity, policy or programme. It should enable incorporating lessons learned into decision-making.

Natural sciences: Branches of science — such as biology, chemistry, physics and geology — that study objectively measurable phenomena in the physical world. The natural sciences are distinct from theoretical or applied sciences.

NGO (non-governmental organisation):  There is no universally accepted definition of an NGO. The term, which originated from the United Nations, tends to describe organisations that are not a part of a government and not-for-profit, which work on a local, national or international level to address issues in support of the public good. 

Participatory research: Research carried out with the active involvement of subjects or as a partnership of equals between 'experts' and community members. Those involved in the research collaborate to define the project, collect and analyse data, produce a product and act on the results.

Randomised controlled trial: A type of experimental design typically used to test the effectiveness of medical and other interventions. While it is accepted as the best evidence available for healthcare management decisions, its use in the social sciences — such as measuring programme effectiveness in international development — is controversial.

Social sciences: Branches of science — such as anthropology, economics, sociology and psychology — that study society, relationships and how people influence the world. The social sciences may include the humanities, including communication studies, cultural studies and political science.