IIED at 50 must be ready to listen and change: Liz Carlile and Tara Shine in conversation

As IIED turns 50, Liz Carlile talks to board chair Dr Tara Shine about what the institute represents now and where it needs to go in the future.

Article, 19 August 2021

Tara ShineLiz Carlile“My first job was at IIED in 1977,” says Liz Carlile (LC), IIED’s director of communications. “It had been going around five years and was a young, innovative and ground-breaking organisation.” When she returned to IIED a career later, she found an organisation still innovative and ground-breaking but more experienced and authoritative.

“The people that IIED has had the pleasure to work with, and learn from, along the way have been critical to its success,” she adds. “So it was a pleasure to have a conversation with our board chair, Dr Tara Shine (TS), whom I first met more than a decade ago.”

LC: IIED brought environment and development together – how important was that back in the 1970s?  

TS: Very. If I think back to my first interactions with IIED’s work, it was because of that connection. I was in Mauritania, doing my research on ephemeral wetlands in the Sahel, right on the edge of the Sahara desert. And I found all this research by Ian Scoones (who was at IIED at the time) on wetlands in drylands.

It wasn’t just the fact that it was specifically talking about similar environments to the one I was working in, it was also looking at how they were important to the local community, what value they got from them, and what role they played in managing them. Which is what I was interested in too: not focusing on a single question relating to wetlands but looking at the whole system – the relationship between people and the wetlands. This was action research not just theoretical research – in fact, so much so, that I was challenged on the approach in my PhD viva.

LC: That’s really interesting – you were actually challenged on that?  

TS: Yes, very strongly. I was asked why I didn’t just study one beetle that lived in the wetland, and I’m like, I’m not interested in one beetle! My interest was not only in how people used the wetlands for their livelihood but also how they were looking after them and conserving them.

Any partnership with an organisation or a community in the global South should always result in their feeling better off – Tara Shine

At the time the plan was to build fences around the wetlands, drain them and turn them into fields, taking all the value away from local communities. My approach to being an environmental scientist was always very much around putting the human into the environment – rather than the view that conservation and environmental protection mean kicking people out.

So the fact that IIED has always looked at the important role that local communities play in protecting and managing natural resources means it’s always been aligned with my interests.

LC: In my view that approach is still critical today. There are not enough people making that connection, understanding that relationship.

TS: Yes, and not just for biodiversity and conservation or natural resource management. It’s also really important for climate change. Climate change is caused by human beings’ poor relationship with the environment, and our undervaluing of the environment as a resource. So until we change that and better understand how human beings fit into the ecology of any system, then we’re actually never going to solve the problem.

I think now the language we use is more around social justice and in fact, climate justice is a great way to bring in social development. We have been working for years and years on diversity and inclusion in Western society. But we never connected that to biodiversity conservation or reducing carbon emissions. Then we’re surprised to find that there is a racial – a social justice – component to looking after the environment that we hadn’t noticed because we’d been looking at it in two complete silos.

In fact, now as the urgency to protect, restore and regenerate nature steps up, and as the urgency around climate action steps up, it’s even more important that we don’t forget about people – otherwise we risk trampling on them in pursuit of saving the planet.

In this video, IIED director Andrew Norton and Tara Shine reflect on what they learned in 2020 and outline their hopes for what they want to see happen over the following 12 months. This video is part of IIED's 2020 annual review

LC: Everybody talks about working in partnership and we try to claim something a bit stronger. Are we right about that? Have we built authentic partnerships, and what will these look like in the next 50 years?

TS: What is important is where the power lies. Quite often the power is too heavily skewed toward the Northern partner for it to be an authentic partnership. So I think what IIED has been working on is to share the power; sharing power, knowledge and resources means you get a more meaningful partnership.

Any partnership with an organisation or a community in the global South should always result in their feeling better off. The worst kind of partnerships are where you’re there intensively for three or four years then you leave and there’s nothing of value left behind. As we look at decolonising the development space we will all be questioning the value of the types of partnerships that we have and how resources are shared and prioritised to the benefit of partners in the global South.

LC: At the moment, we are the ones who can control how fair we are, the ones who can control how much power we give. We are the ones who can control ‘inclusion’.

What will it mean if our partners don’t want our kind of inclusion – when people don’t want that kind of power, they want this kind of power? I wonder how we will respond to that?

TS: It may affect other relationships – with our donors, for example when we want to give our Southern partners more autonomy and account for our work in different ways. There are systemic issues that have to be challenged in all of this.

Knowledge on its own will never create change... we have to use that knowledge to nurture new kinds of leaders – Tara Shine

But we’ve learnt a lot already from IIED’s work with the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group on how it’s possible to give more direct access to government entities. To encourage decentralising access to climate finance and what works and what doesn’t work. Those are really important lessons to apply across the board.

LC: So I think we’re saying that partnership will remain relevant, but the nature of those partnerships will and must change?  

TS: They must change, yes. And that means IIED must change – I think everyone’s up for that. We may not know exactly what that change looks like for now but there is an absolute acceptance that the world is going to be different and we’re going to have to adapt to be part of that.

LC: It feels quite exciting! It feels like a moment when people are thinking differently.

Another question I have is around bringing knowledge and different actors together to think about those things in different sorts of spaces. Where have we done this really well and what is the learning from that? Can we do this differently and better?

TS: Just listening to what you’re saying I was thinking, knowledge can’t change everything. For behaviour change you need knowledge, leadership, infrastructure and then you need motivation, which is down to your values and what inspires you to do things differently. So while I think that IIED continues to have a role as a knowledge broker, knowledge on its own will never create change. So even getting more knowledge to more actors in more spaces, still won’t solve the problem.

We have to use that knowledge to nurture new kinds of leaders – leaders who will provide a new infrastructure for a zero carbon-resilient world. But we’re also going to have to tap into the stories, which we do in IIED, to connect people on an emotional level with the issues, so that they take action.

And so we need more knowledge, and we need more actors informing that knowledge and receiving that knowledge. And we need to be in more spaces – uncomfortable spaces – to understand how our knowledge fits into making change happen.

Rural landscape with plants growing in the land. People gather in the background

Large-scale ecosystem-based adaptation project in The Gambia. "Climate change is caused by human beings’ poor relationship with the environment, and our undervaluing of the environment as a resource" says Tara Shine (Photo: UNEP via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

LC: I wonder if we do enough ourselves to identify where leadership is happening and where we can join forces. One of the things that strikes me is that many African governments are doing quite amazing things with the resources, people and opportunities they have. But they’re not recognised in that leadership role in the way that others get recognised. Again we go back to multilateral processes that are very Northern. 

How do we recognise leadership? How do we amplify and support it?  

TS: Maybe we don’t call it out enough. We work with leaders in slums, we work with leaders in rainforests. You know, we work with leaders in artisanal mining – and the LDC leaders. We help them to tell their stories. Maybe we need to do that more or acknowledge it more.

LC: How are we doing at 50? You’ve just joined us as board chair which we’re thoroughly delighted about. You’ve been part of our journey – why have you bought into helping us push forward?  

TS: What gets me excited about being part of IIED is its legacy. It’s a nice place to be when you can look back and say ‘I’m glad I was part of that’. And then when I look out into the world, I still see a real need for what IIED does. But I also see a fast-changing world where we will be challenged in a way we’ve never been challenged before.

The pace of change will be much, much faster and the scrutiny greater. I think most people in IIED are not afraid of that change. I rather think it’s a great opportunity and I know that we have the skills to adapt.  

We need to keep our willingness to learn – from the past, from knowledge and from data. We need to listen to diverse voices. The evidence suggests any transition will be unfair and unequal unless we can hear and amplify different voices So a really important role we have is to be humble – to take the time to listen. And to amplify those voices so that the solutions we come to are ones that benefit people and the planet. Yep. All people. Not just us.