In 1928 the Rockefeller Foundation financed a Social Science Research Section (SSRS) at the American University of Beirut. This article uses the story of the SSRS to argue that the interwar years in the Middle East were a germination period of development and modernization theory and practice. The period was one of transition: Ottoman influences lingered into the age of European colonialism while decolonization gathered pace and international actors increasingly spoke up. The SSRS reflected this transitionality. Firstly, it was institutionally part of a new university foundation- development-missionary complex that would build a social science empire by connecting Western and Middle Eastern networks. Secondly, its political aim was to guide decolonization. Finally, the SSRS addressed the epistemic problem of being Western in the now decolonizing non-West by terming its research / protodevelopment sites 'laboratories' and insisting that its research was universally valid.