IIED's founder: Barbara Ward

The founder of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), Barbara Ward was a pioneering economist, writer and lecturer. She was one of the first people to articulate the concept of sustainable development and what was needed to underpin it, and her vision still inspires IIED's work today.

Article, 20 August 2014
Barbara Ward in the audience

Barbara Ward in the audience

Early years

Barbara Ward was born on 23 May, 1914. Her father was a Quaker, but she was raised as a Roman Catholic. Both faiths influenced her throughout her life.

She began her education at the local convent and then went on to study in France and Germany. In 1932, she returned to England to attend Oxford University. She graduated with the highest honours in philosophy, politics and economics.

Journalism and writing

She published her first book at the age of 24. The book, titled "The International Shareout", was on the subject of the growing gap between rich and poor countries, a theme that was to occupy her thinking for the remainder of her life. In 1939 she joined The Economist magazine as an assistant editor, eventually becoming foreign editor.

In 1950, Ward married Robert Jackson, an Australian development expert working with the United Nations. They had one son. The couple lived in Africa and Asia where she gained personal insights into development issues.

International campaigning

Ward continued to publish books during the 1950s and 1960s and played a major part in highlighting the economic problems of the developing world.

In 1957, she was appointed to the Department of Economics at Harvard Unversity with a grant to study development assistance. She spent much of the next decade travelling between the United States and Africa and Asia.


In her later years Ward was especially concerned about the growth of urban poverty and the conflict between economic development and protection of the environment.

In 1972, Ward founded IIED, a policy research organisation that works in partnership with organisations across Africa, Asia and Latin America to promote sustainable development.

Wide friendships and far-reaching influence

Although she was a widely published author, her greatest influence was as an informal advisor to international leaders. Among the world leaders whom she counted as friends were Indira Gandhi and Willy Brandt, as well as US presidents John F Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, as well as several UK prime ministers and heads of state from Africa and Asia.

Ward's interests ranged widely. A talented opera singer, she became a trustee of Sadler's Wells and of the Old Vic theatre. She was also governor of the BBC. In 1976 she was made a life peer as Baroness Jackson of Lodsworth.

In 2000, she was named one of the 20th century's most influential visionaries by Time magazine and in 2014 Ward was honoured posthumously with a stamp in the Royal Mail's Remarkable Lives series, which celebrated 10 extraordinary people who were born 100 years previously.

Early champion of sustainable development

Environmental campaigners know Ward for her book "Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet". 

In this book, published in 1972, she writes of the need "clearly to define what should be done to maintain the earth as a place suitable for human life not only now, but also for future generations". This is generally considered the first and best definition of the concept of sustainable development.

The Barbara Ward Lectures

Ward was a highly regarded speaker whose lectures did much to influence public opinion and international policy. In honour of her work, the IIED organises a series of Barbara Ward Lectures by leading women in the field of sustainable development.

In her own words

Watch Barbara Ward calling for for a more equitable distribution of the earth's resources in the video below. The edited collection of clips are from the landmark film "Survival of Spaceship Earth", which was produced in 1972 for the first United Nations conference on the human environment.


The video playlist below includes interviews with former IIED director David Runnalls and senior fellow David Satterthwaite, plus a speech by John F Kennedy at Boston College in 1963, when Ward was awarded an honorary degree, and a compilation with tributes from colleagues.


Further reading

David Satterthwaite's book on Barbara Ward and the Origins of Sustainable Development