IIED's best of 2020: publications

In what has been a challenging year for everyone, IIED has responded to our audiences shifting into the digital sphere and has published more than 100 papers on a range of topics from across our research areas. Here are the top 10 most downloaded.

Article, 23 December 2020
Covers of top publications of 2020.

Top publications of 2020 (Image: IIED)

Ahead of the launch of our new Publications Library in early 2021, which will offer faster, better access to our 7,000-plus downloadable publications, here are the top 10 most downloaded publications of the last year – plus one which was a big hit from the end of 2019.


cover of Evaluation to connect national priorities with the SDGs

Evaluation to connect national priorities with the SDGs


This ‘real life’ introduction to evaluating progress on the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is based on emerging country experience from North and South, as well as wider past learning on sustainable development evaluation.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all manual, this guide seeks to support evaluation commissioners, managers and professional evaluators to create tailored plans and approaches to SDG evaluation. It argues that a successful evaluation must be both built around existing national context and underpinned by the principles of the 2030 Agenda.

To support customised local or national journeys towards sustainable development, this 48-page guide which launched in January 2020:

  • Lays out the main steps involved in scoping, designing and conducting an SDG evaluation
  • Discusses the ways in which SDG evaluation processes and results can be used to support national progress on sustainable development
  • Identifies key SDG evaluation characteristics and approaches, and
  • Looks at how SDG evaluation can be integrated into national monitoring and evaluation systems.

More about this work: This guide published by IIED, EVALSDGs, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland and UNICEF, is built on lived experiences of national SDG evaluation and assessment from Finland and Nigeria. Since 2016, IIED has been working with EVALSDGs to co-publish a series of nine policy briefing papers on evaluation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs


cover of Tackling the triple crisis: using debt swaps to address debt, climate and nature loss post-COVID-19

Tackling the triple crisis: using debt swaps to address debt, climate and nature loss post-COVID-19

Issue paper 

Even before COVID-19, fears were growing over developing country debt, which had surpassed US$8 trillion by the end of 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation much worse as its economic impact pushes millions more women, children and men in these countries into poverty.

This issue paper published in September 2020 shows how, as part of pandemic economic rescue packages, governments have an opportunity to address simultaneously the crises of debt, climate and biodiversity destruction through a new use of the system of debt for climate and nature programme swaps. Increasing the use of these types of debt swaps would benefit lender and debtor governments as well as private creditors.

More about this work: IIED is working to have creditors and receiving countries take up climate and nature programme swaps – a system that makes it possible to tackle the debt, climate change and nature emergencies together, in order to reduce poverty and ensure an inclusive and sustainable post-COVID recovery.

IIED chief economist Paul Steele explains: “By adopting large-scale debt swaps for climate and nature, governments and powerful finance institutions can help repair markets and address the triple crises of debt, climate change and the destruction of nature.”


Cover of Raising the cost of climate action? Investor-state dispute settlement and compensation for stranded fossil fuel assets

Raising the cost of climate action? Investor-state dispute settlement and compensation for stranded fossil fuel assets

Research report

Global efforts to combat climate change will require a transition to renewable energy and government action to reduce reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. If followed through, such action will create stranded assets – in other words, economic assets affected by premature write-downs or downward revaluations, or converted to liabilities.

To protect their assets from measures to phase out fossil fuels, foreign investors may resort to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), which allows them to bring disputes to an international tribunal and sue states over conduct they believe breaches investment protection rules, and to obtain compensation if the claim is successful.

Even in the absence of legal proceedings, the explicit or implicit threat of recourse to ISDS can provide leverage to the fossil fuel industry and strengthen its position in negotiations with governments over possible compensation. As a result, more public funds may be spent on compensating the fossil fuel sector than would otherwise be the case, making it more costly for states to take energy transition measures.

This 58-page research report published in October 2020 develops a framework for assessing the extent to which energy transition measures could result in ISDS claims; explores the extent to which treaties with ISDS protect foreign-owned coal plants worldwide; and provides policy recommendations to help states preserve their ability to facilitate the low-carbon energy transition.

More about this work: For a concrete example of the complex and multifaceted ways that investment treaties impact on multiple actors in the global South, read Investment disputes from below: whose rights matter? Mining, environment and livelihoods in Colombia.

International investment treaties are a key part of the legal architecture that underpins the global economy. We’re working with partners to realign these legal documents with sustainable development.


Cover of Making the market work for nature

Making the market work for nature

Issue paper 

Tackling biodiversity loss is a growing priority for human survival. Introducing incentives for positive actions could play a key role in helping to reverse this loss. This 32-page issue paper published in March 2020 explores the potential of using a novel approach to promote biodiversity conservation.

Biodiversity credits or ‘biocredits’ are coherent units of measurement that track conservation actions and outcomes and can help improve tracking and transparency. When they are well designed, they can make investments in biodiversity management more financially attractive, for example, by attracting private-sector finance.

They can be used by governments to monitor their actions and report on biodiversity commitments. And, as much of the world’s biodiversity and its richest biodiversity spots are often found in remote and poor tropical regions, we also argue that biocredits must be inclusive, and founded on fair benefit-sharing principles.

More about this work: “Biocredits would finance conservation efforts in a specific area and, unlike carbon and biodiversity offsets, they could not be set against destructive activities in other areas,” says IIED’s Paul Steele.


Cover of What is effective climate adaptation? Case studies from the least developed countries

What is effective climate adaptation? Case studies from the least developed countries

Issue paper

Adaptation is an investment that becomes effective over time through learning. International climate talks are serving as a key platform for bridging such learning. The least developed countries (LDCs), from the frontlines of climate impacts, are pioneering large-scale and innovative adaptation responses.

This 29-page issue paper published in August 2020 draws from experiences in the international dialogues and of LDC national practice to explore how the adaptation narrative is developing at both levels. It examines where they are aligned, and where they clash, in influencing adaptation scope and delivery. Some key lessons that we can learn from the LDC Group are highlighted.

More about this work: The effective implementation of the Paris Agreement is dependent on national action. IIED supports LDCS to strengthen institutional, policy and legislative structures at the national level through engagement with governments and parliaments. We also work to promote knowledge and experience sharing at regional and global levels.

For an example of where national climate policy commitment and implementation has been successful, read ‘Transitioning to a low-carbon economy: lessons from Ethiopia’s progressive climate policy’.


Cover of Urban transformation and the politics of shelter: understanding Nairobi's housing markets

Urban transformation and the politics of shelter: understanding Nairobi's housing markets

Working paper

This working paper published in February 2020 presents findings and recommendations from research on access to shelter and services in Nairobi, Kenya. It is part of a three-city study in East Africa also covering Mogadishu, Somalia and Hawassa, Ethiopia.

Guided by political economy analysis, the two-year research project investigated why and how city dwellers make certain shelter choices, and generated recommendations to improve access to adequate shelter and basic services for the most vulnerable urban residents.

More about this work: From October 2017 to February 2020 we investigated systems of shelter provision in three East African cities – Nairobi in Kenya, Hawassa in Ethiopia and Mogadishu in Somalia – in order to generate new insights to inform more inclusive, affordable shelter interventions.

IIED principal researcher Lucy Earle discussed some findings from an informal settlement in Nairobi in the blog ‘Planning for reality in one of Nairobi’s largest ‘slums’’.


Cover of Delivering change: IIED annual review 2019

Delivering change: IIED annual review 2019

Annual report

IIED’s annual review published in February 2020 summarises the impact of our activities during 2019.

While our 2019-2024 strategy Make Change Happen identified where we can make a difference to five global challenges that we pinpointed for action – climate change, growing inequality, accelerating loss of the world’s precious biodiversity, preserving the health of the oceans, and supporting inclusive urbanisation in the poorest countries – this annual review shows how we delivered against these actions and sought to achieve our mission throughout 2019.

From finding ways to channel climate finance to rural communities in Kenya to documenting health and climate risks for informal urban workers in India and Zimbabwe, and from working to grow networks to support green, social enterprises to winning awards for our work conceptualising sustainable development evaluation, everything IIED achieved in 2019 was done in partnership.

More about this work: IIED director Andrew Norton says: "This collection of stories shows how, with the right approaches, IIED and partners are making a positive difference to those on the frontline of complex and interlinking global crises.” IIED’s strategy was also updated in August in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Cover of Climate finance for hydropower

Climate finance for hydropower

Issue paper

Climate funds should facilitate the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient future. Energy storage and ancillary grid services are critical to expanding the proportion of intermittent renewable generation on the electricity grid. Hydropower remains the largest and most cost-effective provider of bulk energy storage, offering the flexibility to provide most other recognised grid services.

This 42-page issue paper published in January 2020 discusses, while sustainable hydropower may not broadly meet climate finance criteria, hydropower projects with the necessary characteristics for transition do meet these objectives and should attract climate finance support.

Meanwhile, concerns about the social and ecological integrity of hydropower, such as the impact it may have on local communities, provide more reasons for climate finance to incentivise hydropower designs that are socially, environmentally and technically appropriate for future conditions, supporting the shift to accessible, affordable, clean, distributed smart grids.

More about this work: Thousands of large dams are currently planned or under construction around the world. How can we ensure we maximise their benefits while minimising the negative impacts? IIED is a key partner in the FutureDAMS research project, led by the University of Manchester, which is working to improve the design, selection and operation of dams to support sustainable development.


Cover of Putting indigenous foods and food systems at the heart of sustainable food and nutrition security in Uganda

Putting indigenous foods and food systems at the heart of sustainable food and nutrition security in Uganda

Discussion paper

The plight of Indigenous Peoples has drawn increased attention in recent years as they strive to retain their cultures and protect their ecosystems, lands and food traditions in the face of globalisation.

Indigenous food systems are typically biodiversity-rich, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable, and produce nutritious indigenous foods. Yet Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately affected by hunger and malnutrition, and the shift towards westernised diets high in energy-dense nutrient-poor food has led to rising obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases.

Promoting Indigenous plant and animal foods is a means to enhance nutrition and resilience to climate change. This 44-page report published in May 2020, from the Sustainable Diets for All advocacy programme, documents the status and importance of Indigenous foods and food systems in Uganda in order to inform policies, programmes and action at the local and national level.

More about this work: Through citizen action, IIED and Hivos are promoting diets that are diverse, greener, healthier, fairer and more sustainable. IIED communications and advocacy officer Natalie Lartey reflects on the programme in this blog and paper, both published in December 2020.


Cover of ‘Blue economy’: why we should talk about investment law

‘Blue economy’: why we should talk about investment law

Briefing paper

While ocean-related economic activities have existed since time immemorial, public debates about advancing a ‘blue economy’ have signalled new momentum for foreign investment in the sector.

Technological developments have provided new openings for activities such as deep seabed mining and multinationals have identified new opportunities in fisheries, infrastructure development, renewables and coastal tourism. Each of these trends has been met with both hopes for, and concerns about, the ultimate social, environmental and economic impacts.

Greater reliance on foreign investment increases the relevance of international investment law, potentially creating tensions with other rules that govern marine environments and activities. Policymakers should carefully think through these possible tensions and work to ensure policy coherence to support sustainable development.

More about this work: This briefing was published in April 2020 under IIED’s ‘Legal tools for citizen empowerment’ programme. In many parts of the world, investments in agriculture, mining, hydropower, petroleum and other infrastructure are compounding pressures on natural resources.

People who have a strong connection with land, water and other resources are feeling the squeeze – including farmers, Indigenous Peoples, pastoralists and fisherfolk. Find out how the legal tools team at IIED is working to strengthen local rights and voices in natural resource investments.


Cover of ‘Blue economy’: why we should talk about investment law

Bonus: Indonesia’s triple burden of malnutrition: a call for urgent policy change

Research report

The Asia and Pacific region is home to more than half the world’s undernourished children, but also has the fastest growing prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity. With micronutrient deficiencies added to undernutrition and overweight/obesity, the result is known as the ‘triple burden of malnutrition’. This phenomenon is particularly stark in Indonesia, where there are both high rates of both childhood chronic undernutrition and overweight. Yet there is very little data available on people’s diets in Indonesia and few methods adapted to measure the triple burden.

This 36-page research report published in December 2019 is the product of an innovative food diaries survey conducted in Jember, East Java, which aimed to provide information for local and international advocacy on healthy sustainable diets. The report reviews the research methodology, outlines the key findings and provides recommendations for policy and methodological improvements. 

More about this work: Creating change often starts from the ground up and IIED talked to a teacher in East Java province, Indonesia about how she is working with parents and pupils to learn about healthy food choices. The Sustainable Diets for All programme coordinated by Hivos, IIED and partners in the focal countries, worked in Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, Bolivia and Indonesia. 

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Previous years

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