"Development research can make a huge difference to the lives of poor people"

January 11, 2010.  

Interview with Professor Joachim von Braun, former and new director of ZEF's Department of Economic and Technological Change


Professor von Braun, you were one of the "founding directors" of ZEF in 1997 and therefore at the forefront of setting up the institute. How does it feel like to come back after spending eight years as director general at IFPRI in Washington DC, USA?


It does not feel like "coming back", but more like "moving to", as the world's development challenges changed over the years and ZEF has evolved, and my thinking has evolved, too. Founding ZEF with my colleagues 13 years ago was a very exciting opportunity. Germany urgently needed a development research institute, and ZEF is now well established. My international experiences gained at IFPRI, which was a well established international institute when I became its Director General and which more than doubled in funding and in size to a staff of about 300 under my leadership, comes in handy for the tasks we face at ZEF. However, ZEF with its doctoral studies programs and multi-disciplinary research is also very different from IFPRI.


What were the main research areas you worked on and research priorities you have set at IFPRI?


Establishing strong research programs on development strategy, governance, poverty reduction, food security, nutrition and health, markets and trade, and technology and climate change where my main priorities. Doing this in a decentralized way and in cooperation with partners, and by establishing offices in developing countries, for instance in New Delhi, Addis Ababa, Beijing and many other locations was a new way of research implementation that strengthened IFPRI as a global research institution. IFPRI is now not only the leading think tank in food policy, but also among the top one percent in rankings of development economics research institutes. My personal research agenda is exemplified by two recent books: one on "globalization and the poor", and one on "the poorest and hungry". In the past 3 years solutions to the world food crisis dominated my research and policy advice.


Do you think there is a difference between the way development-related research is being perceived and treated by donors, academics and public opinion in Germany and in the international research community elsewhere?


Germany participates well in international development research funding, but German academia is under-represented in development research. Germany lacks international voice rooted in a sufficiently strong think tank culture for strong international engagement; that needs to be addressed by policy and business, as it is of relevance for the quality of Germany's development cooperation and also for the international trade and investment engagement of our country. ZEF can play a role in strengthening that voice. Regarding public opinion, I can point to the many calls I got from German media in the past years while in Washington which suggests that the German public is strongly interested in development issues and that is encouraging.


What are the most remarkable professional experiences you had in the international context and in the US that you would like to see transferred to Germany and/or ZEF?


Development research can make a huge difference to the lives of poor people. Policy makers and development investors are eager to receive evidence-based information. In the world food crisis of 2007/08, for instance, knowledge that existed at research centres like IFPRI and ZEF was swiftly transformed into policy and action by the United Nations and national governments, such as India or Ethiopia, and many heads of states suddenly started to call directly on us. The lesson that I learned from this experience is that we not only need excellent research projects, but a strong research basis to respond effectively to increasingly risky and unpredictable global developments.


Which research fields and priorities would you like to see addressed at ZEF in the coming years?


ZEF has a sound research agenda and strategy. My focus on poverty reduction will remain strong. We increasingly need to focus on risks, that is, environmental, economic and political risks. More over, development policy needs to embrace international science policy more actively, not just aid, trade, and investment policy. In the coming decades, the prices of land, water and other natural resources will increase further, creating opportunities and conflicts in developing nations. This calls for a strong emphasis in our research on institutional innovation.


What are the challenges you expect to face considering the changes ZEF and its setting have undergone since you left in 2002?


It is too early to be specific. Listening to colleagues and partners and exploring funding opportunities for the ideas mentioned above comes first. My colleagues and I will certainly continue to work on the scale and quality of the doctoral program at ZEF linking it even more to the international research and think tank environment, while emphasizing sound research and effective training of our students who come from all corners of the world. ZEF is not only those who are currently at ZEF, but also those who were here before, the alumni. During my world wide travels for IFPRI I was delighted to often meet former alumni of the ZEF doctoral program who now work in responsible positions and thus show the soft power of ZEF and Bonn University. That is a big difference to the situation, when ZEF started in 1997, and it is a strong asset to build on.



Prof. Joachim von Braun was director of ZEF's Department of Economic and Technological Change from 1997-2002. From 2002-2009 he was director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, based in Washington DC, USA).


Further information:

» Interview with "Die ZEIT" (pdf-file)



Alma van der Veen