Chronicle on TEDxIDS: not only build back better, but build forward differently!

by Clara Calabuig Martínez

The past Friday 16th October the first-ever TEDxIDS conference finally took place in an online collaborative space, open to the public through a live YouTube stream. This student-led event brought together the director of the Institute of Development Studies, Dr Melissa Leach, four selected speakers, and more than two hundred participants in the audience. Hosted by MA student and co-lead organiser of the event, Hania Mattoo, TEDxIDS reflected on and reimagined the current world and development praxis, calling for a shift towards assertive transformation and decoloniality.

Melissa Leach opened the floor, considering the challenges we face in the current world. Citing Naomi Klein, she explained how shocks have the power to reinforce the powerful. This, however, is just one view. Leach offers another one, where shocks can also open up, disrupt, create windows of opportunity. Hence, our director looked ahead to post-pandemic transformations, questioning how to build back, not only better, but forward differently. During her introductory speech, Dr Leach explained how the COVID-crisis, which is affecting people very unequally, makes evident three challenges for development: how science is used in policy -its advice, and evidence and uncertainty-, how economies function -the limits of conventional models of economic growth and doing thigs differently-, and new forms of politics which has become the basis of reshaped relationships between citizens and states. COVID has shaken all of this up, and Leach emphasized the new kind of social contracts that we see emerging, like mutual solidarity and care. She finished her introductory speech with hope: development post-COVID must be much more radically transformative, egalitarian, justice focused and inclusive at its core.

Terry Cannon: decolonising aid and development research

Terry Cannon, research fellow at IDS specialising on climate change and disaster, was the first selected speaker for the conference, who talked about power and change. Would aid and science be different if we were not dependent on those that have power for funding? Is it possible to #BuildBackBetter under the current systems of power? The scholar’s answer was clear: only if we build back different. Even development institutions, Cannon continued, have been created based on systems of colonialism, and during his speech he was quite critical even of the Institute of Development Studies, which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. ‘Should we celebrate that?’, he asked, ‘that development research is still needed?’

Cannon called on the audience and development practitioners to reflect; if we remain without interrogating the causes of problems and how they relate to the systems of power, our practices become almost neo-colonialist. Students in the audience asked for first steps on how to work towards building back different, to which Terry appealed for greater honesty. Campaigning and research can help us move forward and distinguish the root causes of global issues, covered by systems of power; movements like BLM or Extinction Rebellion are examples of grassroots social actions pushing back against power.

‘If a problem such as hunger cannot be solved without changing the systems that cause hunger, we must say so’.

In one quote?

Ejiro Okotie: Think inclusion, think access in #BuildingBackBetter

Our second speaker was the amazing Ejiro Okotie, who delivered an insightful speech on ‘the cracks on our society’; namely, inclusion and access. She spoke from her own personal experience and reality at work, as a person with a vision-impaired disability, and explained the necessity to ensure everybody is included in development polices. This is all the more relevant in times of COVID. Marks put on the streets for social distancing, for example, do not take into account blind people, she explains, while other more inclusive solutions exist, like placing tactile marking on those prints. She quoted IDS’ Dr Robert Chambers and asked, ‘whose reality counts?’.

During her well received talk, Ejiro made three suggestions on how to begin to think inclusion and access to accomplish inclusive development. The first would be consultation and active involvement of people with disabilities in policy processes from the design stage. As the mantra goes, ‘nothing about us, without us’. Secondly, it is necessary to encourage broad-based production, as people with disabilities are different, and their particular needs vary from person to person. Finally, she stressed the importance of collaboration across different disciplines and cultural backgrounds, encouraging the sharing of knowledge and the exchange of learning, to ‘build a world that is better for all’.

‘People with disabilities need to be heard from the design stage of any project. After a project has been designed, it is difficult to bring adaptive measures, because that is like medicine after death’.

In one quote?

After Ejiro’s speech and an active participation of the public in the Q&A session, the fifteen-minute break was carried by the sounds of an IDS classic: DJ Graham, while a meme competition was taking place on the TEDxIDS Instagram page. MA student Graham LePage, who curated a radio show with University Radio Falmer and has played for multiple IDS virtual dance parties during lockdown, prepared an incredible mix with music that reflected on the conference theme of #BuildingBackBetter, but different. ‘I wanted music that was calm and beautiful, but also powerful and insistent’, bolstering Latin American folk with sub-bass, mixing the old and the new. In his own words, ‘much like the music, we may have to look to the past to find what we ought to carry forward into our future’. Listen to it again here.

Sahara Basnet: Before moving forward, let’s look back

MA Gender and Development Studies student, Sahara Basnet, was the third selected speaker for the event, who spoke on gender roles in the WASH sector. The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene sector, particularly important to our lives at the current COVID juncture, is highly gendered. As she explained, women, especially in rural areas, are three times more likely to be in charge than men in performing unpaid care work. This includes WASH tasks like fetching water, cleaning facilities, or maintaining spaces.

In her impeccably delivered speech, Sahara showed how WASH campaigns trigger certain emotions so that people can adopt certain sanitation behaviours. This, however, has generated the representation of the ‘ideal mother’ in many campaigns, while the presence of the father figure or any other caregiver remains absent, reinforcing a view that the responsibility of a child is a mother’s work. Some WASH campaigns, therefore, are fuelling these patriarchal stereotypes. In her talk, Sahara explained how WASH campaigns can be empowering in realising gender disparity, and hence promote parity in household tasks and care-giving activities in all their pamphlets and posts. 

‘All WASH campaigns need to be gender-transformative without losing their impact and effectiveness. They need to promote shared responsibility within households in all the campaigns.’

In one quote?

Jody Aked: Supply chains in a post-COVID world

After an interesting and polemical Q&A with Sahara, it was time for the IDS PhD alumni, Dr Jody Aked. Jody brilliantly introduced her speech by mentioning a story-book she read to her children to explain the current pandemic, ‘The World Came to my Place Today’. In this book, little George copes with the boredom of being quarantined home by playing a game with his grandfather and analysing all the items in the house and where in the world they come from. With this, Aked presented the concept of supply chains, defining them as super-structures that connect us and affect our lives.

Analysing supply chains not only addresses the world’s connectivity, but also the inequities and modern forms of exploitation and neo-colonialism present in society. As a potential response to this, she mentioned IDS programs like CLARISSA, which bring to light the hazardous labour conditions in slums in Bangladesh and Nepal, where the worst exploitation of child labour in the world can be found. But Jody’s speech was one of hope. She recalled companies like Unilever and Bettys & Taylors, who anchored their supply chains for greater resiliency and sustainability during the pandemic. Although outliers, these businesses evince that active leadership in supply chains and purpose-driven companies (who, as Jody puts it, ‘have purpose in their soul’) have an enormous potential for doing good in the world. As taking these wholistic/ethical sustainable actions is beneficial for all (workers, customers, shareholders, …), disclosing the human impact and monitoring the well-being that businesses have on the lives of millions of people in all corners of the planet can help humanise other companies and the world of work. Once this is monitored, Jody explained, programs like pension funds can reward those companies that operate more ethically in their supply chains, and contextualised league tables and scorecards, as they are positively impacting human well-being and the reaching of the so-praised UN Sustainable Development Goals.

‘Make the invisible, visible. Getting supply chains to acknowledge and disclose their human impact creates amplifying feedbacks across our financial and legal sectors.’

In one quote?

After the Q&A following Jody’s talk, the conference came to an end with the closing speech delivered by the co-organizer and IDS student representative, Alfred Adjabeng. He expressed his (and our) immense gratitude for the speakers, the organising team members, the incredibly helpful IDS staff, the TEDx organisation, and the audience, for all contributing to the first-ever TEDxIDS event, ‘a dream come true’.

By way of conclusion, and in a personal note, I would like to give a huge shoutout to my colleagues, and most amazing organising committee, Hania Mattoo, Alfred AdjabengKurtis DennisonTakyiwa DansoElliot Arthur-WorsopSama Basil KamalPrachi Pal and Gilang Ardana, for these past months and their committed and enthusiastic work which made the conference possible. We will all agree that the first TEDxIDS conference was a huge success; a shared afternoon to reflect on how to build back better after COVID … that concluded with the unruliest realisation: it is only by building back different. TEDxIDS was a refreshing and dissenting glance at the current world order.

Check out the livestream of the full event and watch out the media platforms for the next one.


Clara Calabuig is from Catalonia. Before studying the MA in Governance, Development and Public Policy at IDS, she graduated in BA Global Studies at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. She has gained experience working with an environmental NGO in Jerusalem, and is interested in peacebuilding, sustainable development and ecological economics. She was co-leading the Marketing and Communications team for TEDxIDS 2020.


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