1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Personal Reflections on My Time at UNRISD

16 Jun 2015

Personal Reflections on My Time at UNRISD
My final e-bulletin contribution as Director of UNRISD provides a moment to reflect on almost six remarkable and challenging years.

For an academic researcher, UNRISD offers an extraordinary and privileged position from which to gain insights into the processes of the UN system and global policy making, and to engage with an international community of policy makers, practitioners, researchers and activists. Its unique status as an autonomous research body within the UN system gives the Institute a power and role well beyond its scale and resources—enabling it to convene and challenge, to shape debates and engage in policy dialogue, and to bring diverse and often marginalized viewpoints to the table. Its small scale and flexibility enable it to be responsive as well as to undertake more politically sensitive work "below the radar", contributing to critical analysis and diversity in perspectives that are essential for continued progress. These characteristics of the Institute, combined with the team of talented and committed staff, ensured that my time at UNRISD remained to the end exciting and rewarding.

My own journey at UNRISD started in the stormy moment of financial crisis, with the uncertainty that faced populations and countries reflected also in the Institute’s own situation. Austerity measures reshaped the development funding landscape over this period. The structural fragility that faces any non-endowed and voluntarily funded institution such as UNRISD was exacerbated by the UN’s own reform efforts in response to these changes. Proposals to foster greater integration among "knowledge" institutions (research, training and library), and to ensure that research was incorporated more effectively in decision processes, stumbled on an increasingly prominent but narrow and functionalist view of research—as a process of creating a product valued primarily for the measurable (and thus time-bound) results it generates. UNRISD resisted this instrumental role as a producer of "knowledge" or evidence which could be managed, transferred and used to inform policy in a mechanical way. Its overall mission and vision is indeed to effect positive and transformative social change: it seeks to be relevant, to ensure the value and use of its research. But it also recognizes that research, evidence generation and social change are political processes, and that knowledge generation is not only about producing evidence of good practices, but may also challenge, critique, provide alternatives and shift paradigms.

Our celebration of UNRISD’s 50th anniversary (1963–2013) during my tenure provided an opportunity to highlight – through a selection of "classic" UNRISD publications, among other activities – the longer term impact of many of the ideas produced by the Institute that have helped challenge and shape policy and practice over the years. They show how it may take many years to build a substantial body of evidence, create an epistemic community, networks of engaged scholars and advocates, who collectively ensure real transformation. They also demonstrate that agendas for social change must be continually revisited, priorities redefined and new evidence provided in response to changing political and economic contexts and frequent reversals in progress.

During the past six years, despite many challenges, UNRISD has continued (as evaluations have noted) to "punch above its weight", remaining extraordinarily productive with its limited and increasingly uncertain financial resources, maintaining its quality, engaging more frequently in UN and national policy processes, and dramatically enhancing its visibility through its increasingly creative communications activities. In other words, it has continued to do even more, and have more influence, with less.

As it looks towards a global post-2015 development agenda, and its own new research and strategic framework, demand is growing for the kind of research UNRISD is recognized and admired for. Ensuring social transformations that are inclusive, just and sustainable will be key to achieving the vision for sustainability laid out in the new development goals. The outstanding team of researchers, communications and support staff at UNRISD is well placed to play a critical role in furthering this agenda. But to do so, it also needs more sustainable and predictable support and funding from the users of its work and ideas—member states, other UN agencies and the wider network of foundations and advocacy groups which draw on its research.

Leading UNRISD during this period has been a source of immense excitement and reward, as well as at times thorny challenges. The fondest memories are, however, for the amazing people that constitute the UNRISD family—both the immediate but always changing members working in the Institute, the steady flow of young interns and consultants who bring fresh insights, the committed and dedicated staff with whom ideas could be debated in a refreshing and collegial environment, an amazingly supportive and engaged Board, and the wider network of partners, donors and friends of UNRISD who are indispensable to the work of the Institute. I leave with pride in what we have achieved together, gratitude for the opportunity, and confidence that the spirit and resilience of UNRISD will prevail as it works towards the vision of a just and fair society for all.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.