IIED is an independent ‘think tank’ policy and action research organisation. They essentially promote sustainable development to improve livelihoods and protect the environments on which these livelihoods are built. They also specialise in linking local priorities to global challenges. IIED’s main way of working is through partnerships with like-minded organisations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The institute’s work is currently divided into four main areas:  natural resources;  climate change;  human settlements; and  shaping sustainable markets. Their core mission is to build a fairer, more sustainable world, using evidence, action and influence in partnership with others.
IIED’s Natural Resources group Director James Mayers discussed with Research Features the important research, advice and advocacy work carried out by IIED and the effects on the environment and for people across the globe.
Hi James! Could you tell us some more about your role as the Director of Natural Resources at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)?
IIED carries out policy research in order to make sure that development is both more sustainable and benefits the people it is supposed to and is beneficial for the environment. My job is to help 26 people – about a quarter of IIED’s staff – be as creative and effective as they can be in the areas of agroecology, biodiversity, land rights, water and forests. This includes focusing on such areas as China’s development in Africa and strengthening people’s rights, so their voices are heard in each of these areas. IIED is split into different research groups, including Climate Change, Human Settlements and Shaping Sustainable Markets. As Director of the Natural Resources group, what are the fundamental objectives of your group’s research?
We work with local partners in developing countries to try to find answers to key questions about how to use natural resources in a sustainable way for maximum local benefit. Then we try to help build local communities’ capacity to make those answers a reality. This often means trying to change policies and the way organisations and companies work. For example, where companies are developing agreements with governments, allowing for large-scale agribusiness in West Africa, we have supported community groups and local NGOs to scrutinise proposed deals and push for effective provision and company practices for local rights and benefits.
With recent reports stating 2016 was the hottest year on record, and with atmospheric carbon dioxide at an all-time high, how important has environmental research become in today’s day and age?
Scratch the surface of most threats and opportunities and you get to the environment. Climate change is a harsh reality affecting millions of people, particularly in the world’s poorest countries. But there are other pressing issues. The way we are trashing ecosystems to enrich a few people at the expense of the majority is a global crime. Some of the answers to how we can do better are well known – from putting decision-making in local hands and making sure that people’s rights are protected, to getting serious about a carbon tax. These things don’t need more research, they need shifts in power. But other issues, such as how to make international investment treaties work for local livelihoods, and how to change the ways land and natural resources are used with climate and environmental change, do need new ideas and better evidence – and that is where IIED and others come in. IIED works in some of the poorest countries worldwide, including Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific. Why do you operate in these areas and what difference has your work made to the people living there?
The issues of environmental destruction and the need for sustainable development are not limited to any single region. We respond to local demand on issues where we have expertise. IIED works primarily to find solutions that can spread and benefit many communities across countries. For example, 20 years ago we worked over several years with a team of Ghanaians on the tenure, tax and institutional arrangements that could make sustainable forestry a reality there. The ideas were radical at the time but gradually they sank in and forestry now brings more benefit to local communities, achieving workable prospects for sustainability. Now, drawing on such experience, we are working in the Congo Basin with a range of local NGOs to help people secure their rights to the forest and build effective enterprises that can benefit local communities and the environment. IIED regularly publish news, blogs and other information through its website. Why is sharing this information with the community so important?
We are all about producing rigorous research to tackle problems and harness opportunities. As soon as we have solid evidence, it is crucial that it is communicated so its effectiveness can be realised. Often this is about helping people close to the action who may not have the time and money to hone the perfect report or academic paper. We aim to get information moving and have it used so we can help make a difference.
Aside from your role as Director of the Natural Resources group at IIED, you previously were Co-Leader of The Forests Dialogue. How does it feel to be such a recognised expert on sustainable forestry?
Forestry is my core interest and that is where most of my experience lies. I now work full-time for IIED as Director of the Natural Resources Group and in our work, we continue to engage with The Forests Dialogue, which fosters dialogue on such seemingly intractable issues in sustainable forestry as local decision-making in investments, and free prior and informed consent. Your research often sees you personally travelling the globe, with particular expertise and experience in African and South American countries. What reaction do you and your group’s research receive when visiting these areas?
Travel is changing. So much more good research and policy influence work is driven by effective local organisations these days, and good communication is hugely assisted by the internet. This means that when we do travel from IIED, we can really focus on what needs face-to-face dialogue and direct collaborative work, generating shared understanding from sweating things out in person in the forest, field or government office.
Gender equality and gender equity are a big aspect of IIED’s mission statement. How do you ensure that this is carried out through IIED’s work?
As an organisation determined to make sure that no one is left behind in development, ensuring that the voices of women and girls are heard and their role recognised is crucial. As a result, some of our initiatives have gender equality and gender equity as their central objectives, for example, we are currently running a project aiming to create pathways for gender equality and equity in agribusiness investments. We are committed to gender equality and gender equity – both in how IIED works and through our research. This is critical to achieving sustainable development.
How do you see the landscape of environmental research changing over the next ten years, and how will IIED’s leadership strategy play into that?
More and more issues will centre on where decision-making power over global public goods lie and on the realising what people value beyond corporate finance economy. I think IIED will be needed more than ever and will be working in alliance with others.
For more information about IIED and their research, please visit their website at www.iied.org
International Institute for Environment and Development,
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