BFP: What do you do?
SM: This sounds like the question the Queen might ask if you were to meet her at a garden party! The answer, Your Majesty, is that I ‘do’ international development, and have been ‘doing’ for forty years: ten years overseas in Kenya, India and Bolivia, then sixteen years at IDS in Sussex, then 12 years as Director of ODI in London, and now a portfolio livelihood. The portfolio includes: Executive Chair of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, a $US 100m fund established by the UK and Dutch Governments to support climate compatible development through technical cooperation, research and knowledge management (www.cdkn.org ); head of a European development cooperation programme at ODI (www.international-development.eu); specialist adviser to the UK House of Commons International Development Select Committee; and occasional moderator of debates for Business Fights Poverty. I have a large number of pro bono engagements, including with the Fair Trade Foundation, the Institute of Public Policy Research, FRIDE (a Spanish think-tank) and the World Economic Forum. More details at www.simonmaxwell.eu.
BFP: What is the best part about your job?
SM:The sense of urgency and excitement of being involved in something that can make a difference to the lives of the world’s poorest people. Poverty and hunger have fallen sharply since 1970, when I started, access to health and education have improved, communications are better, gender equality is a bit better. I don’t know that the development industry can claim much credit, let alone the development research industry, and there is a great deal left to do. There are also many new challenges, like climate change. But, we should not let cassandras rule the day: it’s OK to be optimistic about the development enterprise.
BFP: What has been your greatest challenge?
SM: Personally, I am passionate about building bridges between research and policy. The famous psychologist, Kurt Lewin, once said that ‘there is nothing so practical as a good theory’. True. But good thinking is not automatically practical. Research evidence is only useful when it is presented in readable form, at the right time, and to the right people. That is why I love working in and with think-tanks: the best of them build and support policy communities which bring researchers and policy-makers together; and know how to tread the thin line between academic irrelevance and partisan advocacy. By the way, Business Fights Poverty works brilliantly in this space, bringing people together, sharing knowledge, and building bridges between businesses, researchers, NGOs and policy-makers.
BFP: How have you overcome these challenges?
SM:People working in think-tanks need four key sets of skills: as story tellers, turning complex research into practical policy recommendations; as networkers, so that they have the contacts to disseminate their findings; as engineers, constantly thinking about implementation, building progress on the ground; and as ‘fixers’, sensitive to and engaged in the politics of the policy process. I have four role models: Sheherezade as a story-teller; Paul Revere (who used his networks to raise the militia against the British) as a networker; Isambard Kingdom Brunel as the engineer; and Rasputin as the fixer.
One other thing about bridging research and policy is that it no longer makes sense to work in one country at a time, when so many of the world’s big problems (climate change again) need joint action across national boundaries. I’ve worked to build alliances of think-tanks, like the European Think-Tanks Group, which has members in five countries.
BFP: If someone wants to do what you do, where should they start?
SM: I’m tempted to say: be the Grand Vizier’s daughter, like Sheherezade, or become a monk, like Rasputin. More practically, institutions like ODI are recruiting all the time – and the average age when I left was under 35. They look for people with exceptional research skills and training, though not necessarily a PhD, combined with exceptional communication skills. Field experience in a developing country is highly desirable, not least because it helps give a sense of what is and is not possible in the policy realm.
BFP: Finally, what do you hope to get out of being part of this community?
SM: Business can get it terribly wrong with respect to development, but can also get it right: creating jobs, building supply chains, protecting the environment, supporting communities, and encouraging transparency and good business practice. Sometimes the champions are international companies, sometimes local. Often, they are supported by innovative policy frameworks and finance, and by progressive donors. For me, Business Fights Poverty has been an invaluable source of inspiration and learning: sharing good practice, but also challenging all the stakeholders to improve the quality of evidence.
Thank you to Simon Maxwell for taking the time to do this interview.
Read previous Member of the Week interviews here.