IIED at 50: making IIED future fit

Two new IIED researchers talk about today’s most pressing environment and development issues, future challenges, and how IIED’s ways of working need to evolve to ensure we’re fit for the future.

Article, 20 December 2021

Anna CarthyClara GallgherAs part of a series of articles marking IIED’s 50th year, recent IIED joiners Anna Carthy (AC) and Clara Gallagher (CG) discuss critical issues for the future, opportunities for IIED to shape those issues and share thoughts on how IIED needs to change, develop and stay relevant.

Q: What do you see as the most critical issues facing us as we look ahead to the future?

AC: For me, the most critical issue is climate justice. The climate justice movement gives us the framing to tackle big questions around inequity, power and systems of oppression.

Through the lens of climate justice, we can’t look at the climate crisis on its own in a silo, but as inherently connected to pre-existing systems of inequity, the root causes of marginalisation, and particularly to neoliberal capitalism and the historical exploitation of the global South.

It challenges the profit-oriented and extractive systems of production that sacrifice the needs of the many and wellbeing of the planet for the interests of the few. And as an issue, it brings together other social movements including gender justice, racial justice, economic justice, trade justice and migrant justice. It is a movement of movements because all these issues are interconnected.

Dismantling these power imbalances and systems of oppression is a really critical challenge, and one where we have to invest time, energy and imagination if we’re going to create an alternative future. That is about identifying and understanding what’s wrong, but also about having the courage and creativity to ask ourselves: how do we envision an alternative world?

What does that future look like? What is our transformational vision? How do we get there? This is something youth climate activists are driving for with real force. 

Q: Do you think IIED is relevant for this future?

CG: Picking up Anna’s point on climate justice, research has a role in building an inclusive and equitable world. A question IIED might want to ask is whether a UK-based organisational model will stand the test of time.

Research will need to keep being participatory and bring in voices from all over, from different places, from across different social scales. So perhaps that’s looking at different models that support climate and development research so it’s truly inclusive, just and equity focused.

Q: What do you see as IIED’s opportunities for contributing to a better future for all?

CG: One way IIED can contribute towards change is by using its position and access to influence processes where policies are being set and new initiatives are being planned. This includes bringing in more experts from the global South and people who aren’t traditionally invited to these tables – just as IIED has always tried to do.

We need to get to a point soon where initiatives no longer exclude the people they’re going to affect – but instead fully engage in design and implementation. 

An example is access to climate finance − something IIED has been supporting for a long time. The processes countries have to navigate and the hoops they have to jump through are, frankly, insane.

IIED works with countries trying to access climate finance, to highlight the practical, day-to-day problems and find solutions – what needs to change, what needs to be done, so this finance is accessible. But suggestions aren’t being taken up by the people who have the power to change the rules.

IIED can use its position to get the ideas and asks of countries struggling to access climate finance heard at the highest levels where policies and processes are being set. And it’s not just about bringing new ideas forward, but about stopping mistakes being repeated.

AC: Loss and damage from climate change is also a major issue. While we’re now seeing countries in the global North experiencing the impacts of climate change, it’s global South countries, and excluded and marginalised people, who have always been hit first and worst. And so, we see how loss and damage links to systems of erasure and oppression – it’s a visible manifestation of climate injustice.

IIED can play a role in supporting least developed countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to push for action on loss and damage. This has been a key issue, strongly raised by SIDS, for decades. C

ountries in the global North need to provide new and additional finance to loss and damage. This should include immediate, grant-based funding to respond to and recover from extreme weather events, as well as more long term, flexible funding to deal with slow onset climatic changes.

Man in a dried beach. Palm trees with roots uncovered.

Local worker assessing the impact of climate change in Namatakula Village, Fiji (Photo: Salote Soqo/UUSC via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Q: What do you see as important ways of working as we move forward? Does IIED demonstrate those ways of working?

CG: Given the last 18 months, it’s hard to know what normal ways of working are! After my master’s degree, I worked for the government of Liberia and when I returned to the UK, I took on various short-term contracts all during COVID-19.

Now, starting at IIED, it’s been good to settle into a longer-term contract but joining in the middle of the pandemic has definitely been strange. You have to completely reorientate the way you think, the way you work and the way you operate. There are many colleagues I’ve still not met in person.

In a way it’s a positive development – we’re working on really progressive projects, getting inputs from people from all over the world without any of us needing to be in the same room. Webinars and online workshops are now the key spaces for collaboration, and the ease with which they bring people together is great.

But they do bring with them lots of demands on people – to attend webinars, to join panels, to participate in workshops. I sometimes wonder: is this taking up too much of people’s time? Are we being too extractive?

It might be fine if you’re in a secure job with a fixed salary. But if you’re a consultant or civil servant in a developing country and being asked to make active contributions to back-to-back meetings, webinars, workshops... We’re adapting new ways of working, but we’ve got to make sure these work for everyone.

Q: Where does IIED need to change and develop?

AC: I think for a UK-based development organisation like IIED, decolonisation and anti-racism need to be the number one priority. Decolonisation is a bit of a buzzword at the moment and in some cases the term is being co-opted but without any real action − which ends up diluting it. Because decolonisation, at its crux, is a transformative concept, “not just a substitute for diversity and inclusion”. That’s a quote from Aarathi Krishnan I heard during a webinar about a year ago, and it really stuck with me.

At IIED there are efforts to examine approaches to decolonising development and research. This is really interesting work but decolonisation needs to be a priority across the board. And it’s not something we’re going to achieve in one meeting or one retreat or by developing one strategy – it needs to be integral to everything we do.

This is something that should transform how we operate, for example as Clara mentioned earlier, questioning the UK-based organisational model. We need to keep questioning ourselves, challenging ourselves to unlearn mental models, and bring in people to ask us hard questions to make sure we’re pushing our own boundaries.

The summer of 2020 led lots of people and lots of organisations to have reckonings with racism. Now, a year and half on, we need to ask what has materially changed. For IIED I think that includes looking at the internal policies, how we work alongside partner organisations, how we engage with donors and the make-up of our staff – all things I know we are thinking about.

Another area IIED could develop is researching how people of diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC) experience and respond to the impacts of climate change.

IIED’s research places a valuable emphasis on gender issues and intersectionality, particularly looking at women and girls. But any work on gender needs to be inclusive: we need to look beyond the gender binary and we need to challenge assumptions about sexuality and gender that permeate ‘development’ work. 

Our intersectional approach needs to include consideration of SOGIESC, so for example when we’re talking about women, we should be explicitly inclusive of transwomen. Again, it’s this point about inclusivity. How do we truly incorporate diversity in our research? If we don’t, and these people remain invisible, we risk exacerbating the marginalisation they may already face.

Q: How does IIED’s work and your role at IIED sit with what you want to do and where you want to go in the future?

CG: The work I’m doing at IIED is building on what I did with Liberia – researching ways to address the very real practicalities of accessing climate finance.

Climate finance is – roughly – supposed to be a transfer of wealth from the global North, that caused climate change in the first place, to countries in the global South so they can adapt to climate change and shift away from fossil fuel intensive development.

But there’s no fixed definition of what climate finance is – which is problematic to start with. And the very fact that a loan, for example, can count as climate finance is nonsensical and completely unjust. The US government could offer Malawi a loan, but they’d have to pay it back with interest. So essentially, that’s transferring wealth from the global South to the global North. It’s not right.

There are so many practical issues that need to be worked on. The people who set the rules for distributing climate finance need to listen much harder to why it’s not working. Countries grappling with these processes are very clearly identifying the problems and coming up with practical solutions. But they are not being listened to.

In the work I’m doing at IIED we’re collating evidence to demonstrate precise ways finance can flow from the international level to the community level − and models that support that. We’re generating this evidence, so governments can’t turn round and say “that wouldn’t work” − because we’re showing it can work and that there are case studies to prove it.

I’m glad to be part of the global team working on this. But part of me does wonder whether, knowing this much about the ins-and-outs of climate change, could I have more impact if I got into some big corporate that is failing on every front to respond to climate change. Could I push for change from in the inside?

I’m not sure I’d stand it though. I’m happy where I am for now – trying to unpick the issue of climate finance access and working out ways for it all to work a bit more usefully.

AC: I relate to Clara’s point there about where we are best placed to support change. Climate change is such an existential thing. Sometimes you sit down and ask: where can have most impact? Where should I place myself to contribute in the best way I can?

But the fact that my day-to-day is asking questions, understanding the challenges, trying to find solutions – it’s a real privilege.

My research interests are climate justice and gender justice and being able to examine these issues with work colleagues is really exciting. There is scope for exploring these areas in many of the projects I’m working on – so, yes, I feel lucky to be doing this as part of my work.