Thursday, 20 February 2014

IDS and its Alumni: Thoughts for the Near Future

By incoming IDS Director Melissa Leach

As I prepare to take over as Director of IDS on the 23rd April, alumni are much on my mind. 

Throughout my life as a Fellow here, I have always been aware that the Institute’s Sussex base – the community of researchers, teachers, learners and practitioners who are here at any given time – is only a tiny part of the far wider, global networks that actually constitute what we are and do. Our alumni network – thoroughly international, and spreading far and wide across the worlds of policy, practice, research and public life, is absolutely critical. 

Following our recent Graduation ceremony, we see it expand further, as a new set of cohorts from our MA and PhD programmes join the IDS global community. This is to be celebrated and valued, and for this reason I’m delighted that the Institute is already taking forward a new alumni strategy to strengthen relationships and networks in ways that work both for you, as alumni, and for IDS. 

But my broad vision for the Institute’s near future means our alumni network will be even more important than it has been so far. 

Although it is early days, there are several directions that I believe will be crucial if we are to continue to pursue our core values – working towards a world with no poverty, widespread social justice and economic growth focused on improving human wellbeing, and, I would add, environmental sustainability – in internationally turbulent times. 

Alumni are important to each:

1. To re-state our commitment to ‘engaged excellence’, ensuring that the research-based knowledge we offer is always rigorous and robust, yet engaged with those change agents positioned to act. This will involve combining academic credibility with impact-orientation; instrumental contributions with engaged critique of goals, values, power; independence with co-design and co-production; challenging orthodoxies with identifying alternatives. These are hard things to do, but IDS at its best already does them well. 

Are there alumni out there interested to work with us to build and take forward a vision of ‘engaged excellence’ as the fertile future of development studies? 

2. A second direction I’ve called ‘transformational alliances’: Transformational, because it is clear that ‘business-as-usual’ won’t be enough to deliver the needed step-change towards wellbeing and justice on a constrained planet. There’ll be a need to destabilise some dominant pathways and support imaginative alternatives. Alliances, because building these offers vital opportunities to bring about transformative change. 

The current IDS strategy already emphasises new alliances outside the ‘development industry’; co-constructing knowledge, and innovative influencing. But with an ever greater array of new actors becoming relevant to development, novel partnerships and hybrids emerging that challenge boundaries between public and private, state and NGO, and more than ever, resource flows conventionally associated with ‘aid’ being dwarfed by others, it may be time to become more ambitious and strategic. 

IDS alumni are working in diverse roles, organisations and settings; how might we build alliances together for the kinds of transformation we would like to see?

3. However the third area of vision is where our alumni networks could be most central: making IDS more global. I think we would all recognise the huge shifts that have made an ‘old style’ development, focused just on aid agendas to address poverty in the ‘global South’, so outdated. 

We are now in an emerging global landscape of new geopolitics associated with the rise of the BRICS and transnational movements; globalised movements of resources, ideas, technologies and people; changing patterns and geographies of poverty and inequality; and shared shocks and threats, whether involving finance or food, climate or political instability. 

Poverty, inequality and struggles around rights and identity are realities in all countries everywhere – in the UK too. I believe our development studies agenda must embrace this, tracking flows of power, people, resources and ideas in multiple directions, and addressing questions justice and injustice more centrally, wherever they may be found. This in turn will require a more globally-defined and positioned IDS: for reach, partnerships, credibility, and critical mass and voice. 

Would members of our incredibly international alumni network like to work with us to make a more global IDS a reality? For instance by collaborating to build global consortia around key themes and ideas, and taking forward opportunities for joint research, fundraising, fellowships, convening, teaching and learning, and more?

Looking forward

My understanding is that many of you are keen for closer engagement with IDS' ideas and strategies in ways that could enhance your own work and professional development. I think there are unrivalled opportunities to link these interests with the Institute’s strategic directions over the next few years. As we move towards a new IDS strategy post-2015 and as our 50th anniversary in 2016 approaches, I’d be delighted to work with as many of you as possible to build together a future development, and development studies, fit for current changing global times. 

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