ODI thanks Simon Maxwell for his leadership and vision

30 April 2009
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Alison Evans
Yesterday we said farewell to Simon Maxwell after more than 11 years as Director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

How hard it is to sum up Simon’s achievements in the space of a short blog – there have been so many.  Since Simon took the helm in 1997, ODI has doubled in size to become the largest think tank of its kind in the UK. He steered the dramatic growth in ODI’s public affairs capacity and its public profile, leading to ODI’s recognition as Think Tank of the Year in 2007 in the Public Affairs News Awards.

But it is really Simon’s unerring commitment to push high quality evidence and debate into the heart of international policy processes that has become his leitmotif.  Under his leadership, ODI has not only built an extensive and respected network of partners in both developing and developed countries, it has also become the first port of call for evidence-based policy research on a host of critical development and humanitarian issues. What ODI says is heard, loud and clear, by those who need to listen, and that is a crucial part of Simon’s legacy.

If you Google Simon, the first thing that comes up is a link to openDemocracy, followed by a whole raft of his recent articles on the global downturn, on the implications of the G-20 summit for a ‘new global order’, on the challenges of financing for development, and the prospects for a new development agenda under an Obama administration. Combine these articles with his prodigious output on the ODI blog and his engagement with the media, particularly around Davos or the recent G-20 summit, and you catch of glimpse of what lies at the core of Simon’s success: his speed of response, and his unerring ability to spot the critical development issues as real-time events unfold.

When it comes to ideas and analysis, Simon’s catalogue is vast and includes work on rethinking rural development; on UN Reform; on the role of Europe in development and the future shape of European development policy; on global collective action and knowledge networks; on practical responses to the food crisis, the financial crisis, and the role of the G-20; and the potential impact of climate change as a game changer for development. 

But his interest extends well beyond the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of development to include the all-important ‘how’. How are policy and programming decisions that influence the course of development made? How can they be influenced? He has championed the importance of translating the results of development research into actual policies to benefit the poorest. He was one of the early champions of the Global Development Network (GDN), and especially the GDN Bridging Research and Policy Project, which was conceived in a workshop he co-organised with Diane Stone at Warwick University in 2001. This led to ODI’s own work on the subject, now well established as the Research and Policy in Development Programme (RAPID).

His own contributions to the theory and practice of bridging research and policy include a conceptualisation of the policy entrepreneur: someone with excellent research skills; someone who can also tell a succinct and convincing story; a great networker; someone who can build long term research programmes and move fast to produce the right evidence at the right moment; someone with the political sense to know who is making the key decisions, and how they can be influenced.

Simon has also spearheaded an approach to international collaboration between development research institutes on key global policy issues, which he calls policy code sharing. Not the Microsoft global corporation model, nor the McDonalds global franchise model, but similar to the route-sharing model used by airlines, who agree to collaborate on some routes while competing on others, best encapsulated in the European Development Cooperation to 2020 project.  

He has also organised major conferences and workshops on this issue including the Development Studies Association Annual Conference in 2004 Bridging Research and Policy in Development, and Planning for the Future and Managing Change in Research Institutes and Think-tanks at the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes General Conference in 2008.

His key publications on this topic include:  Global Knowledge Networks and International Development (ed with Diane Stone) (2005) Oxford: Routledge  and Policy Entrepreneurship for Poverty Reduction: Bridging Research and Policy in International Development.

One of Simon’s clearest legacies at ODI is his now famous dictum of ‘find out who is making what policy decision and when, and what evidence they need to make it’. This has been passed on to generations of ODI researchers as a reminder of what is distinctive about working in a think tank – the need to know your audience, be ready to engage and, above all, be timely. Earlier this year, ODI was recognised by Foreign Policy as the UK’s leading think tank on international development, a clear vote of confidence in Simon’s vision for ODI.

There can be no question that Simon has led ODI with energy and passion, backed by a deeply-held conviction that the world can, and should, be a better place for all its citizens. Whether it is holding internal seminars on his latest best reads (from Made to Stick to the Black Swan), or pushing us all to go the extra mile to distil our ideas into, preferably, three key messages, Simon has excited and challenged us all. As one senior colleague has put it, Simon is never dull, he makes development exciting, and he has a unique capacity to appear excited and interested about any issue.  Simon will be sorely missed, but his leadership has ensured that, as one chapter of ODI history ends, a new and fascinating chapter is opening.

Thanks to Dirk Willem te Velde and John Young for their thoughts – I’m sure that many others will want to contribute their thanks and reminiscences.