Q&A: What can universities bring to development?

Sarah Cook, new director of the University of New South Wales Institute for Global Development. Photo by: ACFID

CANBERRA — After almost a decade working for the United Nations, Sarah Cook became director of the University of New South Wales Institute for Global Development in October. Most recently, she had been director of UNICEF’s Office of Research-Innocenti based in Florence, Italy, and before that director of the U.N. Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva, Switzerland.

Starting a new life in Australia and moving into the world of academia was a big shift for Cook. But with a particular interest in China’s social and economic development and its new role as a development donor, she sees the Institute for Global Development as an opportunity to make inroads into solving global challenges.

“We don’t spend enough time drawing out the lessons … There is a lot of knowledge left on the ground.”

— Sarah Cook, director, UNSW Institute for Global Development

Cook spoke to Devex about her new role and the opportunities it provides.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

It is a dramatic shift from U.N. roles in Europe to a research position in Sydney. What attracted you to this role?

With this opportunity, I started thinking about solving development issues in a relatively new environment. What are the big issues of development that are going to shape our future? How should we think differently about development and global transnational issues from a regional perspective?

The university has a strong science focus and faculties including law, business, and so on. In solving the big global issues, we need to think about doing something different moving forward, and expanding development circles will be important.

How do you think universities can help expand the support required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

At UNICEF I was closer with the humanitarian work ... and an organization that is on the ground in emergencies has a lot of experience they draw on to make decisions about working in that context. But [as a sector] we don’t really have the knowledge of which one of those decisions can lead to better long-term outcomes.

One of the things we wanted to do when I was at UNICEF was to draw out some of the lessons and experiences before people move on to the next emergency, and the one after. We don’t spend enough time drawing out the lessons … There is a lot of knowledge left on the ground. And there is not a lot you can do in an academic role except to get those people to come back and reflect upon their experiences.

What we can also do is support low- and middle-income countries who need more technology and skills in building institutions, lawyers, and people to support social protection systems … So how do we give those people who are studying law, engineering, or medicine the capacity to work in the development context? That is an area where the field as a whole needs to move, and there may be opportunities here to think through some of those questions.

You had a research background before working with the U.N. Are there particular research objectives you are keen to pursue?

In the past, I have focused on social and economic transformations in China including issues around social justice, equity, gender, migration, and more. There are still areas within that broad category that I want to continue to work on … [as well as] on China as a global development actor. From this perspective in the Asia-Pacific, it is a unique moment in time to look at that and how we engage with China, and how China does research to reflect on its own role in development.

“We have to be patient about how research will have an impact.”

But more broadly, so many of the issues are transnational. Care work, for instance, becomes linked to migration, gender, women’s capacity to work, and aging populations. That whole section is another area I hope I will have people to work with.

With both your research and practical experience, are there ideas you will be bringing to help research from UNSW have a bigger development impact?

Research is not one thing and most of the time it is very incremental. We can’t expect all research projects to be successful to scale ... What we find today could be validated by additional research, or overturned by someone else’s. Or it might answer one question from a particular angle or context but is not replicable.

We have to be patient about how research will have an impact, but we also need a bit of patience in how we can work with people to build up that body of knowledge and change a field, not just say that one intervention will change the world.

For Australian aid, the geographic focus is the Indo-Pacific region. What is your research experience in this region?

I haven’t done work in the Pacific — China and Southeast Asia has been a focus … What I would like to do regionally in the Pacific is to think about the ... transnational global issues, including climate [and migration], which look very different in different environments but [are] common issues … I have to work out where we put our emphasis, and that will be part of my role over the coming months.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.