Science - December 16, 2009

Strong attack on aid but weak thesis

Joris Tielens

A University of Twente PhD thesis has created quite a stir. Wiet Janssen claims in his thesis that development aid in Africa is counter-productive and should be stopped. Four leading professors thought the thesis was so weak it should not be passed. One of them was Eric Smaling, a Wageningen professor who also works in ICT at Twente.

'Three other professors, Paul Hoebink, Jan Willem Gunning and Rob Visser, were as amazed as I was by the content of the thesis. We wrote to the faculty at Twente to explain why we thought the thesis was not up to PhD standard. I was then invited to put our case from the floor at the defence on 3 December. That is very unusual.
'Wiet Janssen's conclusions are not supported by solid research. He didn't do any research of his own, he quotes extensively from reports and policy evaluations with negative conclusions, but ignores a lot of other studies with positive conclusions. What is more, his methodology is incomprehensible. He uses a business model, but nowhere does he make clear how the model is used to reach his conclusions. The person who developed the model says it has been wrongly applied by the PhD researcher.
'Everyone is entitled to their opinion on the usefulness and necessity of development aid, but
that is not the same as drawing conclusions that are based on science. When you do this, the one must be a direct consequence of the other. That is not the case here, which is not good for science and not good for the people involved.'
Janssen's supervisor, Erik Joost de Bruijn, disagrees with the criticism. He describes Janssen's dissertation as a 'thoroughly solid, scientifically well-supported business studies research'. He fully supports the awarding of a PhD to Janssen.