You are here

Development Hypotheses

A development hypothesis states what will occur if a particular intervention is undertaken, or a combination of several building blocks that are critical for bringing about a particular development outcome are put in place. USAID's CDCS guidance makes it clear that these propositions cannot simply be wishes. USAID expects development hypotheses to be grounded in evidence.

In the Development Hypothesis section of a CDCS, USAID requires a short narrative that articulates the hypothesized linkages between a CDCS Goal, each DO that supports it, and, in turn, the linkages between each DO and its supporting IRs and sub-IRs. USAID staff who have experience developing a Results Framework will recognize, on the right, the graphic devices that tool uses for expressing development hypotheses.

In a Development Hypothesis narrative, hypotheses are often written out as causal "if-then" propositions. Several such propositions laid out in a sequence describe a strategy’s "theory of change."

For example, USAID development hypothesis for realizing increased trade might be written out this way:

If maritime transport costs decline, the volume of trade in the target country will increase.

Working down to explain how maritime transport cost would be reduced, a Mission might write:

If port efficiency is increased, then maritime transport costs for exporters and importers will decline.

In turn, the Mission might hypothesize that:

If goods-handling systems at the ports are automated, then port efficiency will rise.

Laid out this way, each of the causal hypotheses that underlie a Mission’s strategy is both potentially testable and specified in a way that can be monitored and evaluated.

For this theory of change, would the Mission involved be able to cite references to demonstrate that its strategy was "evidence-based?" Absolutely. Over the past decade, a significant body of literature has emerged, based largely on multi-country regression analyses, demonstrating that results along this chain to be highly associated, making it likely, though not certain, that if USAID invests in a strategy based on this theory of change the results it expects will materialize.

USAID/Uganda's Tips for Producing Promising Development Hypotheses

Do: Don't:
  • Start with broader development theory but be as specific as possible, considering both the interventions USAID controls/manages and broader operational context/influence.
  • Answer the question, "Why are you doing this and what will it lead to? " "If USAID…, then…" statements are usually helpful.
  • Account for USAID's "additionality"—would the development result happen anyway?
  • Beware of "why not something else"—your project's reasoning/documentation should explain why your particular path to a Goal is the most promising choice among different options.
  • Recognize that while you suspect you know the relationship between the "If and then," there's a fair chance you, and USAID, could be wrong.
  • Make it so general it could be true in any country or any Development Objective, but customize and tailor your development hypothesis language to the local context.
  • Put value statements ("efficient," "effective") in the "If" part of your hypothesis.
  • Worry about exact wording at first; focus instead on the clarity of reasoning and ideas.
  • Worry about complete certainty of accomplishment