1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Interview with Shahra Razavi

14 Oct 2013


Interview with Shahra Razavi
As Shahra Razavi, long-time UNRISD Research Coordinator working on gender and development, settles into her new position as Chief of Research and Data at UN Women, we gave her the chance to review her 20 years at UNRISD and reflect on contemporary development debates around gender and research.

UNRISD: You're joining UN Women at what seems a decisive moment, with "women's empowerment" increasingly central in some of the debates around the post-2015 development agenda. What are your impressions of this situation and, as the Chief of UN Women's Research and Data Section, what do you see as the role that research can play in this context?

Shahra Razavi: I think the debates that are going on around the post-2015 development agenda do constitute a decisive moment for women’s rights advocates, providing the opportunity to construct a comprehensive agenda that can address the structural underpinnings of the current crises, intersecting inequalities and multiple injustices. There is an apparent consensus on the importance of addressing "gender inequality", evident in the various proposals that have been put forward for the post-2015 agenda, which is encouraging.

However, how "gender equality" or "women’s empowerment" are understood differs among those who are vocal in these debates, and they are not always embedded within a comprehensive understanding of women’s rights that embraces civil and political as well as economic and social rights. In the position paper that UN Women put forward on the post-2015 agenda, the aim was to identify the structural underpinnings of gender inequality that lead to the violation of women’s rights—including the critical issues of violence against women in both private and public arenas; inequalities in capabilities and access to resources; and inequalities in political participation and decision-making power from the level of families and households to local governments and national parliaments.

I think good research, by which I mean research that is conceptually and empirically grounded, can play an important role in showing how gender inequalities are reproduced across different institutional arenas, and how policies within particular contexts shape these outcomes.

UNRISD: During your time at UNRISD, you must have seen major changes at the Institute under three different directors. As an institution, how do you remember UNRISD when you arrived 20 years ago? How has it changed since then?

Shahra Razavi: The three directors each had their own intellectual interests and their own particular style—but what I also find striking, perhaps more so in retrospect, are the commonalities: their intellectual interest in scholarly research and debate (not surprising, given their attraction to a research institution); their passion for equality and social justice; their respect for staff's intellectual autonomy; and their encouragement of staff initiatives to further the Institute’s agenda

UNRISD, of course, changed during these years—partly because there were changes in the research agenda, but also because the context within which the Institute was operating changed: fundraising was always an issue (and a big headache for the director!), but the relations with the bigger UN changed as well, and the pressure to show "results" also had an impact.

UNRISD: You came to UNRISD in 1993, the year of the Institute’s 30th Anniversary, and you left in 2013, UNRISD’s 50th. There must be many highlights that stand out for you over these two decades. If you had to mention just two—one per decade—what would they be?

Shahra Razavi: There were many highlights—from working with colleagues on flagship reports, to launching new research projects and securing funding for them, to holding workshops and conferences that brought so many outstanding researchers together from different corners of the world, to working with young and dynamic research assistants who added so much to the Institute.

But if I had to select one highlight per decade, I would point to the collaborative inquiry that brought together UNRISD colleagues and many others to produce Visible Hands, and its launch in 2000, as one highlight; and the research project on Political and Social Economy of Care, which allowed me to engage intellectually with an amazing group of feminist researchers from different regions between 2007 and 2011, as the other highlight.

UNRISD: We often talk about the difficulty of measuring the impacts of research. Do you see gender as a field where the impacts of research are more tangible, more measurable?

Shahra Razavi: If you mean measuring and showing impact of research in the "RBM" sense, then I would say that showing impact of research is as difficult when one is looking at social development as it is when one is considering gender.

Research may contribute to policy change and to social change but it is mostly indirect and influenced by so many other variables. We know some research projects and some publications have been very influential in changing the terms of academic debate, and maybe indirectly and unintentionally in changing policy mindsets, but it is usually quite difficult to show causality, to isolate cause and effect. I am sure we can always do better in tracing the influence of this and that research or publication on policies, but it is far from being a precise science and mostly dependent on accidental discoveries of evidence.

UNRISD: During the last nine months you were based in Geneva, you had a visiting professorship at Bern and Fribourg Universities in Switzerland, and were working for UN Women in New York. So you had a bit of distance from UNRISD, and time to reflect. What would you say allows UNRISD to have a close relationship both with academic institutions and with other parts of the UN system?

Shahra Razavi: I think UNRISD can maintain its close relationship with academic institutions because it provides a space for many researchers to work across countries and disciplines. The comparative interdisciplinary nature of UNRISD’s research is a source of attraction to many scholars. UNRISD also provides a platform for scholars to get their research better known to a wider, global audience and yet without them having to compromise the integrity of their research.

As for the relationship with other parts of the UN, I think UNRISD tries very hard to reach out to them. And those who are interested in ideas and research do appreciate and use UNRISD’s work—I think UNRISD has had very good collaboration with various UN agencies over the years. However, if the rest of the UN does not use more of UNRISD’s work I think this is a reflection of the ways in which some parts of the UN have become increasingly bureaucratized and lost interest in, or incentive for, engaging with ideas and critical research.

UNRISD: When it comes to knowledge creation and generating ideas which move the development community forward, how do you see the role of the UN in general and of UNRISD in particular?

Shahra Razavi: I cannot speak for the entire UN system. There are clearly parts of the UN (or rather, sections within some UN organizations) that continue to produce cutting-edge research, and we see this in the many outstanding flagship reports that get published.

UNRISD has a unique place in the UN by producing research that is not confined to a particular sector (health, labour, trade) or discipline; by being able to question the conventional wisdom (other UN agencies such as UNCTAD and ILO have also been able to do this); by broaching sensitive topics; and perhaps more uniquely, by being able to do the kind of horizon-searching research that others are rarely able to do. But this is very often contingent on having like-minded funders who continue to believe in the usefulness of the kind of inquiry and analysis that goes beyond "quick and dirty" research to respond to current hot topics and immediate demands from the policy community.

UNRISD: UNRISD is an autonomous space in the UN for critical, independent research. Why is this necessary?

Shahra Razavi: There are many other spaces for critical thinking and research, be it in national universities or global research institutes. But what is unique about UNRISD is that it provides a space for critical reflection, research and debate within the UN system—which means that it is normatively anchored by the broad UN principles ("freedom from want, freedom from fear"); aware of and responsive to the current agendas and debates (be it on gender mainstreaming, indigenous people’s rights, or the post-2015 agenda)—yet able to reflect critically on those issues; and able also to place other issues on the agenda for research, reflection and debate that are not on the policy agenda. Some of the research that UNRISD carried out, for example on social policy back in the 1990s, was not of immediate interest to the UN. However, over the years as the topic has emerged on the UN agenda, the work that UNRISD had done turned out to be very prescient and useful.