01 March 2014

How do you write about development research for a fashion magazine?

I'm not sure if I have an answer to the above question, but when I was asked by Absolute to write an article about the kinds of research IDS does and make it relevant to your average fashion magazine reader it was a challenge I could not refuse. So here it is. The text is below and the link to the magazine is here (the article is on the back inside cover--you have to flip through the magazine to get to it). I figured I would appeal to issues that were also relevant in Brighton and so I focused on land, drugs, sex, tax and hunger. It was easier to write than I thought. Whether any of the Absolute readers read it and what they made of it I have no idea. (By the way the interview with singer Peter Andre, Brighton resident, is perhaps even more fun than my article. Perhaps.)

Absolute Article

"OK, so what does international development have to do with your average Absolute reader? Never mind that, what is “international development” and why is it interesting? 

I’m writing this article to try to pique your interest in what my organization, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), is completely passionate about: ending global poverty. How can a research organization do that? It’s simple, we do the analysis that drives people like Oxfam, Save the Children and the Government’s overseas development programme, UKAID. 

Let’s start with tax and move on to land, food, drugs and sex. 

Tax. You’ve probably heard about the “Robin Hood Tax”—the idea of taxing financial flows at very low rates to help tackle poverty here and abroad. Well, IDS research showed that what we really need is a Panic Tax, something that taxes the speed of financial flows, a bit like a resistor that regulates the flow of electricity. We found that it is not the only the size of the flows that contributed to the financial crash of 2007-8, but the speed of the flows. So a tax to discourage panic buying and selling of stocks and shares can stabilize markets and raise funds for those who are the worst hit by financial turbulence, hence a Panic Tax (catchier than Keep Calm and Carry On, don’t you think?). 

Land. You may also have heard about “Land Grabs” – the buying up of thousands of square miles of land in Africa and elsewhere by wealthy countries and companies to secure supply chains. Many say this is terrible—it’s ripping off poor countries, while many say it’s a windfall investment that wouldn't happen otherwise.  Our research shows that the facts fall somewhere in between. If the government is weak or lacks integrity, ordinary people will suffer from the Land Grab. Where the government is responsible and responsive, they probably will benefit. 

Food. Did you hear about the big NGO IF campaign last year and the concert in Hyde Park? That was all about global hunger and malnutrition. One in 3 kids on our planet are malnourished. Do you remember the tragic case of Hamza Khan from last year? He was the child whose mummified body was found under a pile of rubbish in his cot. He was 5 and yet he was found in jumpsuit for an 18 month old toddler. He was starved, not taken to the doctor and not cared for. There are 170 million of these kids in the world. But unlike Hamza, their parents can’t afford to take care of their kids and their governments don’t recognize the problem. Our research helps to give these kids a voice in the world of decision makers. We are working with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, one of the largest in the UK to advise them on how to spend $700 million over the next 7 years in turning this situation around.  

Drugs. Sadly, as residents of Brighton and Hove, we are all too familiar with the problems of drug addiction and abuse. The big debate in drug enforcement is whether to reduce demand, reduce supply or decriminalize the non-class A drugs. But did you know that the drug control policies often don’t work to reduce supply and even worse, they make poverty worse by ruining fields, damaging roads and markets, and sowing fear and distrust in previously closely knit communities.  

Sex. As a final example of the work we do, think about sexuality. Go on. The Winter Olympics is shining a light on sexual rights in Russia. But our research on the legislation that denies lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender individual their rights shows how pervasive the fear of difference is. All over the world, those in power attempt to legitimize this denial of rights it by encoding it in law in countries as diverse as India, South Africa, Thailand and Uganda.

Sex, drugs, land, food and taxes. IDS does research on the fundamental human issues that matter to people all over the world.  We do the research that fuels the legislation, the policy initiatives the charities and the media attention that can make positive change happen. That is international development. But it is also relevant to development in Brighton and the UK. When food prices shoot up, children in poor families suffer the most.  When banks default, tax rates increase. When drug enforcement is destructive it risks fuelling the problem.  When land is bought without due process we all feel disempowered. When our friends are beaten up for being different we all die a little. 

But shouldn't the money from UKAID be spent on these issues here in the UK? It’s a valid question and one that is difficult to answer in value for money terms. It’s better to answer it in terms of values. How do we want to be seen in the world? If a pound can buy a months supply of vitamins for a baby in Bangladesh or a bag of Haribos in Brighton, where is that money best spent? These are not easy questions. There are no easy answers. The UK government says it is willing to spend slightly more than half a penny in the pound on it. It doesn't feel like much to make a big difference to the lives of millions of people in the wider world--and in the process help us to solve problems closer to home."

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