Remembering Gordon Conway (1938-2023)

IIED pays tribute to an influential ecologist, author and pioneer of sustainable agriculture.

News, 06 October 2023
Gordon Conway speaking in front of a microphone.

Sir Gordon Conway speaking at an International Food Policy Research Institute event in Washington, DC in 2016 (Photo: Caroline Smith/IFPRI, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

Initially trained in agricultural ecology at the University of Wales, Sir Gordon Conway’s distinguished career spanned decades and continents, earning five honorary degrees and fellowships in addition to his own PhD from the University of California and a professorship at Imperial College London.

Amid his many achievements, he made a critical contribution to IIED’s sustainable agriculture programme in the 1980s. Conway’s work helped sow the seeds for the sustainable food and agriculture projects which IIED staff and partners undertake today.

Sir Gordon passed away on 30 July 2023; he will be remembered at a private memorial service in November.

A lifetime of service 

Active into his 80s, Conway’s work included authoring a number of influential texts on sustainable agriculture, acting as chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) to support the Millennium Development Goals, and chairing the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) during his time as vice chancellor of the University of Sussex.

These are just a few of many academic, advisory, research and leadership roles he held in the UK and US, balancing his passion for people’s wellbeing with environmental goals. Notably, as president of the Rockefeller Foundation (1998-2004), Conway helped launch its work on HIV/Aids.

A personal recollection

Camilla Toulmin, former IIED director and now a senior associate, shares her memories:

"When I joined IIED in 1987, I was lucky enough to find Gordon in the next-door office. 'Make the most of the next few weeks,' he advised 'because life will get very hectic once your activities get going'. He was right, and I took his advice, getting us much reading done as possible as the drylands programme got into gear.

His partnership with Robert Chambers from IDS meant IIED was at the heart of innovations in participatory practice, and as Gordon recounted what they had learned from a recent visit to northern Ethiopia, his excitement was electric.

Gordon had boundless energy, and a very inquisitive mind, so conversations could go in multiple fascinating directions. He had a strong commitment to making space for the next generation from which numerous young colleagues benefited, including myself. He was very generous, opening doors, bringing you into new arenas where important stuff was happening, whether at the World Food Prize, the Rockefeller Foundation, DfID or the Montpellier Panel.

We didn’t always agree about the primacy of technology for achieving positive change, which he was very wedded to, but he was willing to accept that institutions, land tenure, and social structures played a valuable role alongside the clever science. His engagement with so many people and his commitment to making a practical difference were exemplary, and provide a role model for anyone seeking to contribute to international development."