26 July 2016

Leading environmental economist, with a passion for bottom-up development, becomes a Professor in Practice at Lancaster University

Dr Camilla Toulmin has spent her career bridging the worlds of thinkers and doers.

The former director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), one of the world's top institutes for sustainable development, has joined Lancaster Environment Centre.

Three years spent in Ethiopia as a child gave Camilla a lifelong interest in Africa. So after completing economics degrees at Cambridge and SOAS, Camilla headed for Africa, to teach the subject at the University of Ahmadu Bello in Zaria, northern Nigeria.

Fieldwork - village life

"Then a job came up in Mali working for the International Livestock Centre for Africa in a village in the Sahel.  It involved sitting in a mud hut for two years and collecting basic household and agricultural data – an unmissable offer

"Some of the households had more than 80 people, living, eating and working together in a common field.”

She explored the economic management of households looking at the interplay between diversification, innovation and investment - in wells, cattle, ploughs and women.

She became fascinated by what made these households prosper or fragment, and the importance of household size and the need for good people skills in those leading these huge domestic enterprises. She realised she had material for a PhD and a book.

International Institute for Environment and Development

After working for the Overseas Development Institute, she joined the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in 1987 to set up a programme on African drylands.

"IIED had a very can do attitude - while people did research they also did lots of direct practical engagement so it felt as if you had broken out of the ivory tower and were getting involved in all sorts of activities that were way outside what a researcher might typically do."

Camilla helped set up Le Pilon et Mortier (Pestle and Mortar), a network of NGOs across Francophone West Africa, connecting community activists with local academic researchers.

"Everybody was talking about participatory rural planning and management of natural resources but nobody knew much about how to do it. We set up a training programme to help turn the rhetoric of participation into a set of practical tools and a network of trainers.”

A series of ground breaking projects followed, including work on land rights, aiming to bridge the gap between customary practices and statutory laws "to get better recognition of the strength, value and legitimacy of local practice."

In 2003 Camilla became director of IIED, when it was struggling to find direction.

"I used to reflect back on the skills that you need to run a successful household in the Sahel, which is a mixture of giving people enough space to be productive while recognising common, public activities that need to be carried out. I realised the same skills were useful leading IIED.

"We got IIED recognised as one of the top global institutes working on sustainable development, in particular linking global debates with local realities, and trying to bridge the worlds of thinkers and doers."

Returning to frontline research

Last year Camilla decided it was time to relinquish the reins of IIED to focus on her own research.

"I wanted to return to the African village I had lived in for two years, to document in detail what has happened over the last 35 years. I’ve been back every couple of years to keep in touch.  I now want to have a much more detailed review of how land use has changed, and what’s happened to people, livelihoods, household size and migration.

“I am looking at how people make ends meet and prosper, what’s happened to some of the big investments such as digging wells and investing in cattle - how those have played out and what innovations have emerged.”

Camilla is exploring rising tensions between farmers and herders over land, and is using aerial photography to help local people “visualise” the changes that have taken place in their area.

As well as carrying out her fieldwork, Camilla will develop new projects at Lancaster University.

"I like the fact that Lancaster Environment Centre has got such a diverse range of people both from the bio-physical sciences, alongside a significant group of social and political scientists. There is also a rootedness in the area with a strong interest in what is going on in and around Lancaster, and the innovation hub is a great way to work with small and medium sized enterprises, making connections between research and other forms of activity.”

Professor in Practice

Camilla's role as a part time Professor in Practice,is to bring her outside experience and contacts into Lancaster’s research and teaching. She is part of a growing group of social scientists within the Lancaster Environment Centre with an interest in the political aspects of ecology.

Next January Simon Batterbury, another leading social scientist with an expertise in Africa, will join Lancaster as Professor in Political Ecology.

Professor Kevin Jones, director Lancaster Environment Centre, is excited about their potential to link further the worlds of thinkers and doers.

"Both Camilla and Simon are incredibly well connected internationally and have a good understanding of policy areas and governance. They will help to direct our natural and social science work in the environment and development arena, emphasising our determination to get engaged with real issues and challenges on the ground, for our teaching and research with impact.”