Reflections on my time as IIED director

IIED's outgoing director Camilla Toulmin looks back on how the organisation has grown and evolved over the last 12 years.

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5 March 2015

IIED researchers in Uganda: "IIED works with small and medium sized enterprise (SMEs), municipal governments, pastoral communities, representatives of urban poor federations, smallholder farming groups, and other poorly represented interests" (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)

When I became director of IIED almost 12 years ago (initially on an acting basis), the institute was much smaller and less visible. With 60 people and a budget of £5m, the organisation had been losing influence and position for some years. From today's vantage point, summer 2003 seems a very long time ago: before the financial crisis, pre-Hurricane Katrina, and just after the ill-fated, wilful invasion of Iraq.

At that time, my aim was, and has continued to be:

Making IIED visible and respected – this meant getting IIED into a series of external arenas and investing in communications. We needed to go along to events, speak, and get our voice heard and recognised.

IIED is in a completely different place today, thanks to many colleagues across the institute, and especially the communications team. Today we are recognised not only as leading thinkers on environment and development, but also at the forefront of development communications.

Generating ideas at the cutting edge of sustainable development debates, and making sure we thought through the implications of climate change for work across all our programmes.

Saleemul Huq led this process, making the case for why climate change matters hugely for sustainable development. So we ensured that everyone in the organisation, whatever their focus, could see where and how climate fitted into their research portfolio. Indeed, it was becoming clear that all other development objectives are put at risk if we don't address both the necessary cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and urgent need for adaptation, and building resilience.   

We now need to do something similar with our urban work at IIED, to embed an understanding of urban issues into all our work on land-use, food and agriculture, green economy and related issues. We aim to be ahead of business and governments on thinking through these complex issues, but this sometimes means you're too far in advance of your time, and need to find ways of getting your ideas understood, accepted and tested out in practice.

Recognised and valued by key donors this required tightening up our internal business and finance processes. IIED sometimes prides itself on inspired ad hockery. This is fine as long as you deliver a good product and on time but, 15 years ago, we had started to slip. We needed to improve our systems for contract management and ensure timely delivery of good product.

This required a much more effective finance and contract management system, but it also meant changing attitudes and expectations among colleagues. IIED's reputation now is transformed on this front. Our framework donors have been very helpful in pushing us to take on board new policies and systems, as a condition for future funding.

Admired as playing an essential bridging role – by bringing research and evidence to key actors in government, business, civil society alliances, and international agencies. This means understanding what people need, and finding new ways to frame ideas and evidence so they address that need.

IIED does not fit into the usual organisational types we combine research, advocacy and engagement – we like to get engaged with governments, and inter-governmental process.

IIED has always believed in getting our hands "dirty" by listening to and engaging with people to try to find solutions to difficult problems. Rather than focusing on big business and big government, we've chosen to develop relations with smaller actors in the system – they have much less power, and weight.

IIED works with small and medium sized enterprise (SMEs), municipal governments, pastoral communities, representatives of urban poor federations, smallholder farming groups, and other poorly represented interests. It's more challenging than dining with the big business lobby, but constructing bridges between multiple and diverse groups, to get their priorities on the table, is really important.

Offering an innovative and attractive environment for committed staff keeping the strengths of the organisation's idiosyncratic and collectivist spirit. We need to maintain space for innovation, to be flexible and pragmatic, promoting diversity in ideas, people and perspectives.

If we seek to speak up for the voiceless and promote collective action externally, then we must be consistent and apply the same principles within the organisation. I have always tried to provide space for competent people to develop and grow, based on trust and confidence.

Our move to new offices in the Gray's Inn Road three years ago was a step change for the organisation. There have been a number of impacts. It's sent a signal to the outside world that we have ambition and purpose, as expressed in the kind of building we have made; it creates an environment which attracts new staff, and also many outsiders; it allows and encourages more flexible working patterns, meetings, and team building; and it allows for much better communications technology.

Whatever I might have helped make happen at IIED, the institution's strength comes from the energy and hard work of colleagues within IIED and in partner organisations.

I am hugely grateful to many people who have been intensely loyal both to me and to IIED's values and mission. I know the organisation will go forward in their safe hands.

Camilla Toulmin (camilla.toulmin@iied.org) is the director of IIED. This is the latest in a series of blogs she is writing following the announcement of her departure in 2015, reflecting on her role and the work of the organisation.

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