Examining the Past, Present and Future of International Development; An Interview with Lorriann Robinson

Areeshya Thevamanohar is a second Year Politics students at King’s. Growing up in Malaysia, and then moving to London, she hopes to keep exploring the many conflicting views that have shaped how gender is treated in all walks of life.

[Featured Image: Lorriann Robinson herself]

Lorriann Robinson began her career as an event and research assistant for the Fabian Society. She then worked in children’s rights for Barnado’s and the NSPCC before moving into international development as a Senior Policy Advisor for World Vision UK. She joined the ONE Campaign in 2014 and in 2018 set up The Advocacy Team independently. 

I had the pleasure of chatting with Lorriann about her work and experience within international development. She shared her thoughts on what is and needs changing within the sector and advice for those keen on a career in development.  She shared great stories like receiving a call from Number 10 regarding the G7 Summit, while at the opticians with her children, two and three years of age respectively, who she was also playing ‘kuchiku’ with to have them sit still. Needless to say, she’s someone who can do it all (which she credits her supportive family structure for greatly). 

A: At World Vision, you researched child labour, early marriage and FGM/C in India, Albania, Ethiopia and Malawi. Explain the work that you did there. 

L: We were trying to bring them higher up the political agenda here in the UK. The research that we were trying to do was a combination of helping to understand the phenomenon and helping to understand the practices and what types of interventions are effective. We were helping to give light to children and young people’s experiences and then using that information to influence the political agenda. 

A: Were there any obstacles you faced in terms of trying to get this higher up the political agenda? 

L: Often, I found that you need some external things to come together. Sometimes you’re riding a political wave or external factors that help you to drive attention. For instance the work of activists in the UK such as Nimco Ali who was drawing attention to the phenomena of FGM/C affecting children here in the UK. We were very much riding that wave. I co-wrote a paper which appeared in the Evening Standard called ‘Fighting FGM/C in the UK; Lessons from Africa’ and that was very much drawing on this because, at that point, the UK had not had a single prosecution. We had done research on countries and in contexts that did not have the resources that the UK had but had a stronger political commitment. We thought the UK could learn rather than from these countries – instead of the traditional approach of ‘let’s see what’s happening in France.’ We instead said, ‘well, African countries have been trying to tackle FGM/C to varying degrees of success including in places where FGM/C was a minority practice so the UK could learn lessons from them.’ So we definitely rode that interest to help us to galvanise attention for it. 

A: Was there anything you didn’t expect to encounter when doing this research? 

L: Hugely. I think, on the one hand, it’s incredible to have access to the field and to be able to talk to young people in that way. Having worked at the NSPCC and Barnado’s, that access is hugely regulated by social workers and ethic panels. They had academics and groups of experts get together and scrutinise a research concept mode and methodology before giving the go-ahead to do this intervention with vulnerable young people. And I didn’t always see comparable systems and processes because child protection systems differ by place. That doesn’t make the UK system perfect or a model that the rest of the world should replicate. It just means that it has a kind of bureaucratic and regulated approach to child protection which did not always translate into access to be able to research in other places. That’s why I was taken aback by just the access to be able to do it. At World Vision, I brought in an academic from Oxford, who runs the Young Lives programme, and she does a lot of research on the ethics of researching on young people. She did a session with some of the staff at World Vision to bring some of these issues to light. It’s a work in progress. 

A: At the ONE Campaign, you played a leading role in the campaign to enshrine the 0.7% target into UK law. How would you respond to critics who would rather the money be invested domestically? 

L: It’s how we meet our international responsibilities. The UK spends about 14 billion pounds of its income on development assistance. This is a small thing that all of us can do is to make sure that refugees can eat and get an education and make sure they’re not cold in the winter. It’s a really small thing and nowhere near good enough, but that’s what 0.7% allows us to do. It enables us to do something very small but fundamental. 

A: You have been vocal about the need for more diversity within the sector. In an opinion piece titled ‘We need to talk about race and development,’ you talked about the reluctance to acknowledge and discuss racial paradigms. Was this something you saw working both in the UK and abroad?

L: I noticed these dynamics and these paradigms in development overseas, and they’re different. They operate differently in different places. But, they exist. I think the question is, do we pretend they don’t exist? Or do we make sure we have uncomfortable conversations and explore them and think about how they impact our work and think about how to challenge them. 

A: Particularly within the UK context, how should we start discussing such paradigms? 

L: I think the starting point is that we shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about having these conversations. I talk about race all the time with my family and friends. It’s not an uncomfortable conversation for lots of other people and me. It’s just that we aren’t as comfortable to talk about it at the workplace. There has been a lot of change since I wrote that article in 2018. There have been significant shifts with the charities I worked with, and I just read a recent piece by Girish Menon who is CEO at ActionAid who did an excellent article on the different dimensions of race and inequality in development. I think that would have been unheard of three years ago; it just didn’t exist. We have to keep at it and keep encouraging people. 

A: Post-colonial theorists are often critical of development itself and how we define it. You mentioned in this article that you’ve found ‘when development teams are overwhelmingly white the strategies and decisions about development come from middle-class white voices, opinions and experiences’. Would you say then that with more diverse development teams, these strategies could change and perhaps we won’t be striving for a result that mimics purely western standards? Or at least framing this idea of development upon a linear scale that sees modern and western as interchangeable? 

L: I don’t know if I’m even that optimistic because, in reality, we have to ask ‘who is the audience?’ Any intervention that is grown out of the UK is very likely to have an audience that is the UK government and UK public. They are likely to be the people who finance it, and I think inherently that will require whether intentionally or not, that strategies and important elements of that intervention be kind of targeted to a UK audience. Ideally, the primary audience should be the people your interventions are trying to affect. 

 L: I don’t think changing the staffing structure so that they’re more diverse and representative of the makeup of the UK will fundamentally change that dynamic. But I think it could bring some big changes. For instance, when organisations sit down and think ‘what are our top ten priorities for this year?’ I think having a more diverse audience sitting at that table can challenge those decisions and those conversations. I don’t think it’s the silver bullet that will change everything, but I think it’s a fundamental thing that needs to be changed and challenged. I think we need these spaces where we’re thinking far more radically about how we could change the sector so that the driving force is not organisations being headquartered in London, where the setup will be very different. 

A: In another piece titled ‘Five small steps’ that development agencies could take to improve representation on their teams, you mentioned listening. Here, you talk about the ‘open doors’ events the Advocacy Team has hosted. Could you explain what these events are and what you’ve learned from listening to other people’s experiences? 

L: I set up independently at the end of 2018. I knew I did not want to just work for organisations. I wanted to use it as an opportunity to try to address the issues that no one was going to pay me to look at. I also felt like I was well placed to do it because I have good networks within the development sector. At the same time, I would often have the experience of people coming to me, who seem to have all the right skills and experiences and were trying to get into the development sector. And for some reason or another, were not able to do that. So it came from a genuine intention, if you could bring those two groups together, you could dispel some of the myths, and you could allow people to gain crucial subtle insight, networks, information, understanding that would help. That would just make that process easier.

 L: So we ran the careers fair in June of last year, and we had DFID, UNICEF, the CDC group, Global Witness and so on. What I wanted to do was to showcase the range of opportunities that existed in development. So that people don’t think it’s just about large INGOs. There are private-sector agencies and multilateral, government and organisations like CDC who are essentially bankers. I wanted the people attending to know that there is such a range of opportunities. And it worked incredibly well because some participants quite literally got jobs. So that’s the biggest thing take from it.

A: Do you have any advice for anyone interested in working in the development sector? 

L: My number one thing is don’t be afraid to ask. I often hear from young people who say ‘I’m not sure if this is like this.’ Just pick up the phone, send an email or reach out to someone on Whatsapp. You have nothing to lose. Second would be to think about what it is that you want to do initially. That doesn’t mean that you do that same thing throughout your career, but although some graduate programmes exist most of us won’t be getting onto those. So the entry-level requirements are going to be based on skills jobs. That means that people are going to be recruiting for a campaigns assistant, a policy assistant or a social media strategist. Think about which of those areas match your skills and interests and begin to develop experience that is as relevant to that area. Then when you’re making those applications, your CV is relevant. And I think you’re more likely to be successful than if you do a range of interesting things that don’t paint a picture or tell a story in the same way. 

A: In the debate on international development, there is often use of the analogy ‘give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.’ It’s been used to justify international development, yet some argue that this statement oversimplifies the very complexities of the work done by these groups. Where do you stand regarding how this analogy portrays the work done by international agencies? 

L: It is far more complicated. The work you do could be technical support like helping a country collect tax revenue more efficiently, the kind of traditional humanitarian interventions in warzones, scholarship programmes, or investment in research to develop a new vaccine for the Coronavirus. It’s just so diverse. The analogy also underplays the fact that in almost every country, regardless of its level of capacity or income, public services are provided by national governments. They’re the people who are ultimately responsible and accountable for those services. Too often, those services fall short for a range of reasons and development assistance can and should help to provide a level of education and basic support. I think that’s a good thing. 

Bibliography: 

Robinson L. (2019) ‘Five Small Steps’ Available at: <https://medium.com/@lorriann_18038/five-small-steps-a91940b19281> [Accessed 2 March 2020] 

Robinson. L (2018) ‘We need to talk about race and development’ Available at: <https://medium.com/@lorriann_18038/we-need-to-talk-about-race-and-development-427be16d37f5> [Accessed 2 March 2020] 

The Advocacy Team Website Available at: < https://www.theadvocacyteam.co.uk/about> [Accessed 2 March 2020]

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