In your own way

Touching Hearts and Minds Together: A Conversation with Melissa Leach

“Love, relationships, emotions and feelings have a place in development thinking and practice, as they are a big part of why we do what we do. After all, it is about the way we feel about the world and issues rather than just because they are academically interesting.”

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS), founded in 1966, is one of the world’s leading organisations for research, teaching, and communications on international development. Over the decades, IDS has made ground-breaking and influential contributions to the field of international development including studies and researches on addressing poverty and inequality, village and rural poverty studies that led to development from the perspectives of the poor, participatory approaches to development and democracy, gender dimensions to development, the role of emerging powers in international development and many more. In 2014-15, IDS along with University of Sussex topped the QS World University Rankings in development studies.

To learn more about the future of IDS and global development studies, Say for Development had a conversation with Melissa Leach*, Director of IDS, about her journey in international development, IDS’ role in this post-Brexit era, as well as the place that concepts like love, relationships and feelings could have in development thinking and practice.


Say for Development: You are a geographer and an anthropologist. How did you get interested in development studies?

Melissa: Well, I think my first interest in development goes back to when I was about 15. I was studying Geography at school and was absolutely captivated by a television series about development in Ghana. It was about the effects of dams on people’s livelihoods, community development approaches, and intermediate technology. I found it very interesting and that triggered a continuation in international development issues, which I pursued through a degree in Geography and particularly Human Geography. In the early 80s, Development Studies was not so common as a degree subject but I took all the development options that I could. I also did some fieldwork in Africa and South Asia in my holidays as an undergraduate. I was fascinated with living with and learning first-hand  about people, their livelihoods, and their own knowledge and practices, often  in challenging circumstances. That triggered my interest in pursuing a PhD in Anthropology.

Although, my commitment was very much to research that would make a difference to people’s lives on the ground through influencing policy and practices, and to what I have since come to call ‘cognitive justice’ – that people’s own knowledge and perspectives have a central place in how development is defined and done. Living and working with women and men in a remote forest village in Sierra Leone during my PhD, and reflecting on the implications for how one could do forest conservation, which was a big issue at that time, in ways that also enhanced people’s livelihoods and the quality of relationships between women and men, had a huge influence on my life.  Towards the end of my Ph.D., an opportunity at IDS came up to join as a Fellow to lead a new programme on environment and development. It hit many of the issues I have always been interested in as an Anthropologist, Geographer, and a critical scholar. It was at that point when I joined IDS and I have been here for a long time.

Say for Development: Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is one of the leading institutions for development research and studies in the world. You have been involved with IDS since the 1990s and you are currently the Director. How do you see your journey with IDS?

Melissa: I began as a Junior Fellow. I was one of the only four female Fellows here, and I was seven or eight years younger than the next younger Fellow. There was a big gender and age gap, something that does not apply in IDS today as we have a much more diverse fellowship across gender, age, and background. My first few years were spent as a field researcher and I was lucky enough to get project funding to go back to West Africa on a fascinating research on people’s management of forest resources. The research ended up reversing many of the conventional wisdom about deforestation and foregrounded the importance of indigenous knowledge and practices. That was very exciting and led to a lot of further work around forestry. I also continued to work on gender and environmental issues and established an Environment Group at IDS.

I had a period when I was heavily involved in teaching – I convened the MA Gender and Development course for several years, taught the MPhil and supervised Ph.D. students, learning a great deal from them. Then, there was a team reshuffle and I took leadership of the KNOTS (Knowledge, Leadership and Societies) team. I moved into a team-level leadership role and along with others colleagues, we received funding for the STEPS (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability centre), which I directed for 10 years. STEPS has developed empirical research and partnerships across five continents, although I have always kept a foothold in West Africa, with ongoing fieldwork and partnerships there.

Say for Development: The study of development has become much more multidisciplinary. IDS has a number of centres and clusters dedicated to research on different aspects of global development. Standing at a point of the Universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), how do you foresee IDS’ role in coming 20 years?

Melissa: I suppose some of the things I see for the future are also areas that I have been working with others to put in place since becoming Director two years ago. I think the unique feature of IDS is the approaches to research and what we call Engaged Excellence – rigorous and robust research using a variety of methodologies that are of high quality, but also linked to engagement with change agents who can make a difference on the ground, whether they are Governments, Civil Society Organisations or International Agencies. A key part of this Engaged Excellence concept is the idea of co-constructing knowledge with societal actors, with non-academics, as well as working in international partnerships. We judge the quality of our work by its engagement, an approach which I think has more value than ever before now and into the future. A second trend is that the world is becoming ever more globally interconnected. Many of the challenges we are facing today are ones that are shared by everybody, be it climate change, pandemics, or financial and food crises. The responses have to be grounded in local contexts and I think there is an enormous opportunity to work as one hub of global networks and consortia that are sharing and learning from each other about the experiences of different places.

The other big change I have seen over time is the move towards seeing development as universal and defined as progressive change for everyone, everywhere. This is a value that has always been a part of my own work. For example, in the early 2000s, I led a series of projects around Child Health and Vaccines that involved fieldwork in Guinea and Gambia and also in Brighton. I worked with parents in the estates of Moulsecoomb and Whitehawk (neighbourhoods in Brighton, UK) to understand parents’ understanding of vaccines and child health, from which a comparative framework was developed. I have always worked across North-South boundaries and found that the colonial ideas of seeing development as something that happens ‘in developing countries’ or ‘in the Global South’ is really problematic. Even 10 years ago in IDS, some of us were arguing for a universal approach but it was a bit unusual then. Whereas now with the Universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the realisation that problems of inequality and insecurity are also rife in countries like the UK, the universal agenda is absolutely clear. So, I think it will be a key part of IDS in the next 20 years.

Say for Development:Earlier this year, Britain decided to leave the EU (European Union). How do you position IDS in this post-Brexit era? Do you see any major challenges in terms of IDS’ role as a research and teaching institute?

Melissa: I think the key message is that however the formal relationship between Britain and the EU changes, IDS remains a place that is absolutely committed to working with international partners across Europe and in other parts of the world. We have partnerships with research and teaching institutions in European countries and I am determined to ensure these collaborations continue. The implications of Brexit for the things like research funding, movements of staff and students are still unclear, but we will try to work through it in a way that maximises our continued role as a place for international exchanges. Brexit also makes some of the challenges that we work on, more relevant. For example, one reading of the Brexit vote was that it was a response of some communities in the UK to the inequality and the insecurity about their jobs and status in a globalising world. IDS work can help to understand these anxieties better and help to document and attempt to deal with the effects of globalisation on communities all over the world, including in the UK, and to address some of the questions about voice and power which were at the heart of why the Brexit vote went the way it did. I think IDS also has a role in working with other development research organisations and think-tanks in the UK to make the case for why Britain needs to remain an international player, or why maintaining the 0.7% aid target is crucial, and why the new Government’s commitment to justice must happen not just in the UK but globally. We are working with others to try and help shape the agenda of the new Government to look outwards and to make sure that the UK remains a key player in international development.
But it is a challenging time because there are also interests within the Government to not push in that direction, so I think our role is to support those in the Government and within the civil society who want to make the case for the UK’s continued global role, and not to retreat into a small island situation.

Say for Development: Very often, common people find difficulties in reading and understanding mainstream development studies and literature. In what ways can we make development literature more engaging and communicative?

Melissa: I think it is necessary to make development literature accessible. One of the things we have been discussing in the post-Brexit context is about the way that our work often fails to engage everyday publics, and that people on the streets are not necessarily aware of or have the language to understand the importance of some of the issues we work on. I am very committed to having multiple forms of communications around the work and research that we do. So yes, there is a value in academic theories, concepts, and debates, and sometimes it is necessary to make use of language that is not accessible in an everyday manner. But, many of these communications can also be translated in various ways, like visual methods that make sense to people. I also think that there is an enormous value in understanding and expanding access to development ideas through fictional stories One of the things we have done for our IDS 50th anniversary is to launch a short story competition which is open at the moment to IDS staff, students, alumni and partners, to tell stories in a fictional form about development issues. Novels and short stories can be amazing tools to capture imaginations and bring people into new forms of understanding. I have certainly benefited from a lot of development-related fictions overtime. So, we need both; academic debates and theories have their place but we can communicate in other ways too.

Say for Development: During the IDS 50th conference, the concepts of ‘love’, ‘relationship’ and ‘happiness’ were mentioned quite a few times. Is it practical to include these concepts into development practice and language?

Melissa: Certainly. Concepts that are about the human are really important in the issues that we deal with, as they are the ones that touch hearts and minds together. So, words like ‘love’, ‘relationships’, ‘emotions’, and ‘feelings’ have a place in development thinking and practice, as they are a big part of why we do what we do.After all, ultimately we all do what we do because of the ways we feel about the world and the issues we face, not just because they are academically interesting.


Say for Development in a conversation with Melissa Leach


*Melissa Leach is the Director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). She has thirty years of long-term ethnographic research experience in West Africa, focusing on eastern Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and the Gambia, speaking four local languages. Her interdisciplinary, policy-engaged research links environment, agriculture, health, technology and gender, with particular interests in knowledge, power and the politics of science and policy processes.


Say for Development is thankful to Melissa Leach for sharing her insights on the topic as well as the work of the Institute of Development Studies. This conversation was prepared and conducted by Sarabe Chan and Mahmudul Hoque Moni.


Photographs: Mahmudul Hoque Moni


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