Thursday, 21 November 2013

From campaigner to crusty academic

By Jodie Thorpe

When I announced I was joining IDS, most people responded with “great opportunity” or “great fit – congratulations”! My partner was a bit less enthusiastic, it must be said, but only until I explained to him that it wasn’t the UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions* that I was going to be working with.

My favourite response, however, was from a good friend and colleague.

She said IDS would be provide a fantastic chance to engage in high quality and rigorous analysis and methods, and in doing so make a difference to development. (Though she also cautioned me to be avoid becoming too “crusty”!)

A bit of context...For over 13 years now I’ve been working on business and development – the past four of which were at Oxfam.

My job at Oxfam was to help the organisation figure out how best to engage with business towards the vision of a just world with no poverty. By ‘engage’, I mean both ‘attack’ and ‘work with’, depending on the issue and the company.

Some people inside and outside Oxfam saw, and still see, this as a perilous strategy.

Given the often poor track record of many companies on issues ranging from child labour to environmental degradation, how could Oxfam risk its reputation working with these companies? Some thought even campaigning to change bad practice was a waste of time.

Certainly I could see the strategy was not without risks, but I found the critique frustrating. It seemed to me that many of the critics felt it was self-evident that no benefit could come from a private sector strategy. That the power and profit motive of business meant it was folly to expect meaningful engagement. In terms of influence, many saw governments as the proper development actor and advocacy target, despite the fact that many governments also have pretty mixed records themselves on human rights and poverty issues….

I wanted more robust evidence around the role of business in development

However, I eventually had to face up to the fact that I didn’t really possess evidence either. I was acting on the basis that business was an important actor, given the enormous power and reach of many companies. Sometimes their activities contribute to development and sometimes they hold it back, but it seemed clear to me that business plays an important role. Yet the more time went on, the more I wanted more robust evidence and analysis to support this.

This is where IDS comes in.

Next year, IDS is launching a new Business and Development Centre and for me it represents a golden opportunity to collaborate with others inside and outside IDS to grapple with these issues.

The types of questions I hope we tackle include:
  • What is the potential and what are the limitations of business as a development actor? 
  • How do you measure impact in a meaningful way?
  • And what does this tell us about what are the most effective interventions from a development perspective?
I don’t just want to tackle these questions in a theoretical way. I am hoping that we can generate some real evidence and come up with practical solutions and ways forward. This will, I hope, help those trying to understand business and its potential role in development, from NGOs like Oxfam, as well as from donors, governments – and from businesses themselves – to understand what interventions have the highest impacts and help them judge where they might best invest their time and energy.

I find the idea that we can achieve even part of this vision enormously energising. It’s a dynamic agenda with lots of potential for impact and influence. A small price to pay for a little crustiness!

*Iain Duncan Smith, popularly referred to in the UK as “IDS”.

Jodie Thorpe is a Research Fellow with the Globalisation Team at the Institute of Development Studies.  


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