IIED at 40 – mature, confident and fitter than ever

An anniversary is an opportunity to both celebrate and reflect. For IIED, which marks its 40th birthday next week, it is a time to remember what we have achieved and invigorate ourselves for the challenges ahead.

21 October 2011

Some people become more and more fixed in their minds as they get older. I hope IIED is an enquiring as ever, willing to shift ground when the evidence is clear, to be pragmatic rather than stuck in an ideological rut. We need to practice mental gymnastics to keep flexible and nimble in mind.

Age also brings recognition that there are no single, simple solutions to many of the problems we face. Since its foundation, in the run-up to the first UN Summit on the global environment, IIED has recognised complexity and the interconnectedness of the issues we are trying to tackle.

Our name – bringing together the different language, priorities and approaches of the 'green' and the 'poverty' agendas – has always been difficult to explain to people in a hurry. And this has meant we have never been a full member either of the club of development NGOs, or of the green NGOs.

Middle-age brings confidence in thought and argument. Ideas and categories may help us order the world, understand linkages and enable us to explain how we see things to others — but the ideas, words and concepts we use need regular testing so they convey useful meaning.

For example, there's endless debate about whether and how the 'private sector' can increase global food security, reduce poverty or limit climate change. Ardent advocates for and against go into battle, using words which often mask reality and trap the argument into a series of false dichotomies.

With middle-age comes the confidence to say – "Wait... Let's move away from totem language, and recognise the diversity within each of these categories."

Growing responsibilities
As in life, with middle age also come responsibilities. Some of these are the normal accretions of time, such as those linked to people who depend on you, or hold expectations of you. Others may be responsibilities that we take on, based on our assessment of the dangers faced by people and planet.

IIED's mission statement — to build a fairer, more sustainable world, using evidence, action and influence in partnership with others — is a formal expression of the responsibility we have chosen to take on.

The past forty years have seen recognition of environmental constraints move from marginal to mainstream, a great achievement in itself. But nothing stands still and now there is a host of new barriers to progress being erected, such as the shift in the climate change arena from science to ideology based decision-making.

We cannot shy away from our responsibility to achieve tangible improvements to planetary sustainability alongside greater prosperity for poorer people. But, given limited progress to date, we need to find cleverer ways of making change happen.

Time for a change
Forty is more than halfway through the expected life-span — threescore years and ten — that the Bible famously lays out. Middle age reminds us that our time is not infinite.

It follows its own trajectory, opening up new avenues as well as closing others off. Big decisions cannot endlessly be put off, in the hope that circumstances will be more propitious another day.

Some decisions cannot wait, and become progressively harder, if delayed. Reaching a climate change deal in Copenhagen 2009 was one of those vitally important missed opportunities. Having failed on this occasion to follow a logical planned approach, we now face higher risks from climate change each year that passes, and the room for manoeuvre tightening.

Reaching 40 has coincided with IIED moving from increasingly cramped offices in Endsleigh Street to Gray's Inn Road. On Monday 24 October, Stephen O'Brien, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for International Development will formally open our new building, and launch a series of events in celebration of our anniversary.

We've rehabilitated a 1950s office block to create a series of floors and spaces that make us much fitter for purpose. It offers room to grow and bring in new people and ideas, a meeting space to engage in public dialogues, and much better IT to communicate with others around the world.

We are confident this provides us with the grounding from which, with our partners, we can act as catalysts for transformational change.

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Camilla Toulmin's picture