IIED: the first 40 years...

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) started life in 1971 as a US-based thinktank called the International Institute for Environmental Affairs (IIEA). Its founder was legendary oilman and philanthropist Robert O Anderson, whose other accomplishments included building up Atlantic Richfield into one of America’s biggest oil companies. In 1972 he asked Barbara Ward to become the institute’s first president, but she knew how to negotiate and agreed only on condition it moved to London and changed its name to the International Institute for Environment and Development — IIED.

Ward, who had been highly influential at the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, saw people and their development as the essential route to conservation. She pointed out that without development, conservation had no meaning for the poorer two-thirds of humankind.

IIED has been at the centre of environment and development debates ever since. In its first decade, IIED helped achieve consensus for the Rome Declaration at the UN’s 1974 World Food Conference (which proclaimed everyone’s “inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition”), set up its Human Settlements Programme (1977) and sparked a revolution in the environmental performance of multilateral and bilateral aid agencies through the book Banking on the Biosphere, published in 1978.

1980s: Amassing intelligence and advising the global community

Richard Sandbrook joined the Institute in 1976. He shared Barbara Ward’s passion and became IIED’s vice-president for policy in 1983. For IIED the eighties were a time of information gathering and sharing, publishing, advising the global community and engaging with the media. 

IIED’s research teams exploring agriculture, human settlement, forestry, institutions and aid flows all made a substantive contribution to the Brundtland Commission’s Our Common Future, published in 1987. In 1987 the Institute founded the publisher Earthscan, which helped maintain media interest in the Ethiopian drought and subsequently advised Band Aid on how to allocate the large funds raised through public appeal. In 1987 the institute also established a Drylands Programme, which has shaped research and policy on drylands and pastoralism for a quarter of a century. And in 1989, the year Richard became executive director, IIED published its Blueprint for a Green Economy—two decades before countries round the world began branding themselves as green economy leaders.

1990s: Building local capacity for local action

Richard was Director until 1999, a decade during which IIED focused increasingly on bottom-up participatory research and action, partly in response to disappointment at the all-embracing and bland outcomes from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Through the ‘Whose Eden?’ project (1994) IIED challenged the traditional separation of wildlife conservation and local livelihoods. This decade the Institute was amongst the pioneers of participatory rural appraisal methods, publishing RRA Notes, which became Participatory Learning and Action (PLA).  Richard coined the term Primary Environmental Care and held a major conference to share experience on locally-based solutions working for sustainable livelihoods. The multiple spin-offs from this work include many of the approaches now being used to reduce vulnerability to climate change through community-based adaptation.

Sparking controversy: engaging the business sector

Yet this was also a decade in which IIED took the lead in starting to talk to big business – sometimes controversially. A conversation between Richard and the world's largest paper-mill owner at the Rio Summit in 1992 eventually led to a ground breaking, in-depth study of the environmental and social impact of the paper industry worldwide. Richard was a skilled maker of unlikely matches—it was the first time anyone had got scientists and corporations together in a concerted effort to understand the environmental impacts and responsibilities of a big international industry. The report, Towards a Sustainable Paper Cycle, upset many conservationists when it was published in 1996 because it suggested that plantation forests, and even chlorine bleach, were not necessarily the enemies of sound development. Richard enjoyed turning assumptions on their head, and single-minded environmentalists were often those he liked to taunt most.

Undeterred by criticism, Richard initiated more talking with big business. A group of nine of the world’s biggest mining companies commissioned IIED to explore how the sector could move towards greater sustainability. The report, published in late 1999 (the year Richard left IIED), led to the Mining and Minerals Sustainable Development Project 2000-2002 and, through that, concerted efforts by the industry to improve its social and environmental performance. Ten years on IIED is returning to this topic, focusing on how artisanal and small-scale miners can be part of a sustainable and responsible mining industry.

2000s: Focussing and specialising

In general, the 2000s saw IIED getting more ‘specific’: focussing in on particular sectors and actors to explore how these could deliver sustainable development. Internationally, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were highlighting the big development issues. But it seemed as though environmental aspects were slipping out of focus, even as climate change was moving from threat to reality.

Giving the least developed countries a global voice

In 2000 IIED’s Saleemul Huq helped Least Developed Country (LDC) negotiators to create their own negotiating bloc in international climate talks, and in 2003 established a network of fellows and international experts within the Capacity Strengthening in the LDCs for Adaptation to Climate Change (CLACC) programme.

Global land rush: biofuels and climate change

By 2007, IIED’s high profile research linking biofuels, climate change and access to land was a clear voice in a heated international debate on the ‘global land rush’. Once again, the main concern has been supporting the rights of marginalised people. Securing land rights is often a first step out of poverty and vulnerability, yet governments are often blind to longstanding customary rights, especially when they stand in the way of government agencies appropriating those resources for their own ends.

Amplifying hushed voices

IIED has always championed those without the resources to shout for themselves. And IIED’s independent voice is certainly one of its strongest assets. We aim to combine raising important (and often neglected) questions with respected, objective research that offers practical steps forward.

This approach will be ever more crucial as we face future decades. Many sustainable development indicators are still moving in the wrong direction: inequalities are growing and overconsumption is increasing the squeeze on land, water and atmosphere. The next generation will face a ‘perfect storm’ of interlocking forces – climate change, a scramble for scarce resources, and tensions between ‘superpowers’.

Building bridges into the future

Above all, there is an ever-pressing need to change the political system that protects the wants of the few over the needs and rights of the many. IIED will continue to build bridges — between local and global, policy and practice, rich and poor, government and private sector, and across diverse interest groups.

January 2013


International Institute for Environment and Development has been supporting sustainable development for over 40 years

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London, UK

Camilla Toulmin is Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development based in London (IIED). An economist by training... (Read more)

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