The things that make me proud

Outgoing director Camilla Toulmin looks back at her early work on drylands and the three achievements while leading IIED that have made her most proud.

IIED director Camilla Toulmin speaks in a plenary session on day one of IIED's Fair Ideas event in Rio de Janeiro, June 2012 (Photo: Tom Broadhurst/IIED)

I joined IIED in November 1987 to set up the drylands programme. What was it attracted me to IIED? To be honest, I didn't know about Barbara Ward and her legacy. This was to be a revelation over my first months there.

Rather it was most of all the sense of possibility I felt when I visited – a place where I would be given responsibility, and space to develop my own ideas and activity. A place with the same interests as me, and people interested both in research and making a practical difference – where the barriers between research and development had been broken down. 

In the 1987 IIED annual report, it says "change is in the air… with the Brundtland Report Our Common Future presented in October 1987, the World Bank and other development institutions starting to establish Sustainable Development units, and at grassroots level, NGOs demonstrating what sustainable development meant in practice." That spirit of change seems to be afoot again now as reflected in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Just the fax, ma'am

To give something of an idea of what things were like then, the IIED budget for 1987 totalled £1.5 million and I was paid £17,500 a year. We had a telex machine if we wanted to get in touch with people overseas, though sometimes you could make long-distance calls work too. In late 1988, we got a fax machine, which spent the first few weeks quietly in reception. Almost no one else we knew had a fax machine, so there wasn't anyone to communicate with.

The drylands programme, which I set up, aimed to reframe the debate about the huge areas of arid and semi-arid lands that make up 40 per cent of the earth's surface.

After the great drought of 1983-84, many observers, governments and donors said that it would be better for everyone to move out Toulmin joins in a games session at Development and Climate Days, in December 2014 (Photo: Alex Wynter/Climate Centre, Creative Commons, via Flickr)and resettle in more humid zones, as you could never make a living in the drylands. We wanted to show many of the positive stories around local action and land rights in these extensive dryland regions. 

I had been working in West Africa for four years, collecting household data on livelihoods, assets, climate, land use, water and livestock. This research became my PhD thesis, published as Cattle, women & wells – managing household survival in the Sahel. In a world where there were few senior women, I thought it was really important to get a doctorate as a way of showing that I had proper qualifications and was as good as any man.

From the drylands work, I am really proud of many things we achieved:

First, reframing the drylands narrative. We set up a regular newsletter, Haramata, and produced around 200 issue papers, all in French and English language editions. This allowed us to change the way science, policy and agencies thought about pastoral development, and local practice. Ced Hesse, Charles Lane, Ian Scoones and Richard Moorehead were key members of the team. We also engaged with the desertification debate, and helped shape the Convention to Combat Desertification. 

Land of opportunity

We embedded participatory methods in francophone Africa, in collaboration with Bara Guèye, who is now head of IED-Afrique. In 1989, interest in participatory planning and management of land was growing, but there was no systematic training or methods to mainstream the approach. Working with Bara, we set up a training of trainers programme, which really helped embed this knowledge and approach. 

And I am proud of our work on land rights, tenure and common property, especially pastoralism, which we started in the early 1990s, and then hooked up with French colleagues. The UK and French governments had decided to work more closely together, in a rare moment of cross-channel cordiality. This was well before the "land grab" became a hot issue – but we could see that land in Africa was becoming a scarcer and more valuable asset.

Most of all you could see there was a fundamental mismatch between customary rights on the ground and law as recorded in the statute book – a mismatch that offered room for powerful groups to acquire access and control over large areas of land.

We have seen only too clearly how vulnerable local rights can be, especially over common resources, and how little interest many governments show in strengthening the rights of smallholder farmers. One of the best things I did was to hire Lorenzo Cotula, who with his team has taken forward this work to great success. 

Toulmin moderates a session during a plenary on 'Managing the nexus' in 2013 (Photo: IASS Potsdam, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

In my time as director, there is a lot which I can celebrate, thanks to the energy, ambition and deep partnerships of my colleagues – which include investing in locally controlled forests, adapting to climate change, building cities that work for squatter communities, and recognising the vibrancy of informal markets for creating jobs and livelihoods. As always, by working with others, we seek to reframe the storyline and offer evidence and engagement which lead to change.

So if I had to choose three things we've done from the last 12 years that I value most, they are:

  • Making IIED visible and respected as a source of ideas, evidence and sometimes unexpected approaches to building a fairer, more sustainable planet
  • Maintaining a values-driven approach, based on partnership and respect, understanding that you can learn as much from a smallholder farmer, nomad or market stallholder as you do from a prime minister, or professor, and 
  • Offering an attractive but demanding environment for committed staff, maintaining the strong collectivist spirit that underlies the organisation, and ensuring people have the space to grow, given trust and confidence. 

Going forward

My long-term plan is to seek funding to do a systematic re-survey of the villages in Mali where I did my field research in 1980-82. This would survey and document how things have changed over 35 years in terms of land use, household livelihood systems, climate change, livestock-crop relations, land tenure, and much else. 

In the interim, I will remain involved in many of IIED's activities. I have accepted a position as visiting fellow at the Oxford Martin Toulmin at Fair Ideas event in Brazil in 2012 (Photo: Tom Broadhurst/IIED)School, which is largely honorific, but keeps me in touch with this lively centre for ideas. I have also been asked by Zed Books to prepare a new edition of my book Climate Change in Africa (2009).

Climate change will remain a very pressing issue for decades to come, given our inability to address the need for change with sufficient urgency.

Even if we get a halfway reasonable agreement in Paris at the end of this year, it is very unlikely to be strong enough to hold global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius. And alongside climate, we must also remember the vital role played by biodiversity, water, soil, and forests in providing livelihoods and conferring ecological resilience. 

There will be plenty to keep my successor busy!

Camilla Toulmin (camilla.toulmin@iied.org) is director of IIED.