This week we welcome our new Director, Professor Dan Brockington, to SIID. We caught up with him prior to his appointment to discuss his thoughts on a range of topics, from International Development, to the impact agenda, Sheffield and a couple of ‘interesting’ fieldwork experiences! All questions put to Dan have come from members of our SIID network. We’ve recorded some of Dan’s insights for posterity, so we hope you’ll enjoy both reading and listening.
SIID is a unique, grass roots research institute. On joining SIID, what are your key ambitions for the Institute and what are you most looking forward to about working for SIID and the University of Sheffield?
What excites you about the international development agenda at the moment?
There are two things. First, inequality is firmly on the agenda. Since The Spirit Level, since Piketty and now with the moment of the SDGs, inequality in its diverse forms matters a great deal. The IDS’ new agenda reflects that fact. The recognition that excessive inequality can be so disruptive and damaging to our hopes for prosperity is important. It also means, of course, that this becomes a global agenda, transcending the old north-south division.
Second, the plethora of targets set by the SDGS coincides with a really exciting moment in international development – we are realising quite how problematic some of the data we have been using to track well-being and prosperity are. Some of this is about the revolt against using GDP as a measure of national success, but it is also about the severe inaccuracies that measures of economic growth can contain, and the possibilities of developing new measures and proxies using different forms of big data. I am excited therefore at the prospect of developing new sorts of data to help us to understand how the world is changing. My current research in to livelihood change in East Africa will contribute precisely to that endeavour.
Thinking more about the MDGs and SDGs: what in your opinion were the biggest successes of the MDGs, and their biggest shortcomings? In terms of the SDGS, what do they tell us about the International Development agenda post-2015, and can they give us cause for optimism?
‘Impact’ can be a challenging concept in International Development research, as we may often be geographically removed from the countries we are studying. How can we therefore best achieve Impact in this context, and how would you like to see SIID making an impact on the International Development agenda more specifically?
At its extremes, your research has spanned the glamorous world of celebrity-endorsed conservation, to examining agricultural practice in sub-Saharan Africa. What underpins the two?
Intellectually, they are both driven by my desire to understand better the causes and consequences of inequality. Different forms of agricultural change and investment can be essential in determining inequality dynamics in rural East Africa. Likewise particular forms of celebrified conservation can end up endorsing or supporting policies which cause impoverishment and disadvantage.
Personally, they are driven by my delight in crossing intellectual divisions. I don’t like being constrained by disciplinary boundaries. I like asking difficult questions and then seeking out the resources available in diverse disciplines to understand them. That also means I get to work with really interesting networks of people working across different disciplines and professions.
Using five words, can you sum up your contribution to international development research? What are your new and upcoming areas of research?
You’ve travelled and lived all over the world during your career. Can you tell us about the country you have most enjoyed working in? Have you had any funny, scary or challenging experiences whilst doing fieldwork?
I have been fortunate to have worked and travelled in different parts of Africa, as well as in India, Australia and New Zealand. I’m definitely most at home in Tanzania. I’m comfortable with Swahili, my wife is Tanzanian and our children have been to primary school there. I’ve also worked in very different parts of the country there and have done so for over twenty years now. I love the resilience and ingenuity that people display in so many aspects of life there, and their enthusiasm for politics. It’s a vibrant and lively scene with lots of public discussion and debate. There’s also a really interesting group of radical academics with whom I have the privilege of working in the Universities of Dar es Salaam, Dodoma and the Neslon Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology.
As for the funny and the strange, there’s a fair bit of that especially when people take a close interest in your research, and start trying to shape the results. One of the more amusing things which has happened recently was when I was a time I was taking a group of students around a primary school. We were having a bit of a sing song, including dancing to some of the music on my students’ phones. And the film crew who were covering the trip chose to make bits of it into a music video. Scary, well if not that video, then probably the time I fell off a motorbike on a road that runs through a national park. I broke the clutch and could only go in second gear – not fast enough to get out of anything’s way if I needed to. A giraffe ran out along the road in front of me – they are incredibly beautiful, and just amazing when they move because their body seems to go so slowly while they just eat up the ground. I remember just marvelling at it, at the same time as I wish I had the capability to chase it just a bit faster.
But the great thing about this work is that it puts so much of what we do at home (I mean the UK) in a different perspective – that begins to look strange, funny and scary. After some time away you marvel at all these strange new cars, good roads and the silence on the buses. Not to mention the queues of people in straight lines and the difficulty of getting chicken which tastes good. Things are less stark now than previously, there is more continuity between countries, and you can get Face-booked by your friends and informants from overseas, which is wonderful. But its still a privilege to be able to look at the things that have been familiar to you with a stranger’s eyes.
As a keen cyclist, we imagine you will be enjoying the challenging topography and abundance of green spaces that Sheffield has to offer! What other aspects of Sheffield are you looking forward to experiencing whilst working in the city?
I am not far away (I live in Glossop) and I think cycling over the peaks in summer to work will be a real joy. I have family in Sheffield too so we come over quite a bit anyway. It’s a vibrant multi-cultural city and a great place to be.