Trustee chairs in conversation: Maureen O'Neil and Rebeca Grynspan

Article, 11 August 2014

The outgoing chair of the board of trustees of the International Institute for the Environment and Development (IIED), Maureen O'Neil, has reviewed the institute's key challenges and successes over the last six years.

In the first video, above, O'Neill discussed IIED's progress with Rebeca Grynspan, who succeeded her as chair of the board in June.

O'Neill said the IIED had continued to live up to its global reputation. It is one of the few organisations that has always been concerned with poverty and with development, and it has always based what it does on evidence.

She said the IIED's biggest achievement during her term was successfully carrying out its five-year strategy.

The former president of the International Development Research Centre added that another key success was moving IIED towards an outcome-based approach, saying that the organisation had 'really put in place the capacity to evaluate, to measure and to reflect on results'.
O'Neill said the biggest challenge was funding IIED's work. She said it was important to find funding and at the same time to keep "the culture of idealism which generates the passion – which is the reason why the organisation has been so successful".

Part two

In the second part, O'Neill discussed the role of IIED's board of trustees with Rebeca Grynspan, who succeeded her as chair of the board in June.

O'Neill was formerly president of the International Development Research Centre. She said that when she joined the IIED's board she had expected to meet people who were like activist-researchers anywhere. She said such people were passionate about making a difference in the world, and not that interested in worrying about the managerial underpinnings of the organisation.

She said: "That’s that I expected and that's what I found when I came – and I was delighted!"

O'Neil said the board of trustees played a key part in ensuring good governance. The board in effect represented the taxpayers of many different countries who were contributing to the IIED's work through donor framework agreements. 

She said: "We are those who are ultimately responsible. We must be reflective, collaborative — and also critics in the nicest and friendliest way because we are part of the accountability mechanism."

O'Neil added that a board should also support staff, saying: "We mustn't be an obstacle, we mustn't load them down with things that just look interesting. We should never micro-manage and we should be very good ambassadors for IIED out in the world, using all our connections to advance their work."

Part three

Im the third part, O'Neil said that IIED's objective was to contribute to global change, referencing the "enormous energy and enormous collaborative strength" to working with people in local communities during her time as chair.

She added that IIED had had a big impact in shaping ideas about how an organisation could be activist but also evidence-based.

The work by IIED in international forums had also been an important driver for change, particularly work to help the least developed countries build their negotiating skills.

IIED's incoming trustee chair Grynspan made clear that the combination of research and action on the ground was a rare and powerful combination, saying: "It's very difficult for a research organisation to have this connection with the people, with the communities on the ground. It is amazing that IIED has maintained that for so long. That is definitely a huge strength."

She added it was crucial that local communities were able to influence the research agenda, saying: "That is so important because they are usually not heard. If you want to change the power relations on the ground, you want to empower them, you have to first start to make visible their knowledge and their contribution already to many of the problems — not only as recipients but really as actors".

Looking to the future, O'Neil said she thought a big task for IIED would be to consider the issue of gender in relation to environment and poverty, with many people working in the development arena seeming to have difficulty in recognising this as an issue. 

She said: "And yet, when you recall, if you look who is poor, most of the people who are poor in the world are women. So there is an area where there is going to be still lots of work to be done."

The 20-minute conversation between IIED's incoming and outgoing chairs is being published in four parts. Other segments include a discussion of how the IIED lived up to O'Neil's expections, the importance of good governance and Grynspan discussing her enthusiasm for her new role.

Part four

In part four, Grynspan, the former UN Under-Secretary-General and associate admistrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) until April 2014, said she had been honoured and thrilled to be invited to become chair of IIED's board.

She said she had been very involved in discussions about sustainable development in recent years. Grynspan also served as regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the UNDP and added that, while in that role, she had been away from the organisations that were doing the research and gathering the evidence about sustainable development.

What appealed to her was IIED's ability to combine research with action. She said: "Reflect and act: that really characterises the organisation."

She added that during her term as chair she hoped to learn from IIED, saying "I think that I will have something to contribute after the experience that I have had in the UNDP and in the UN all these years and in the negotiations at the global level."

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