In this interview with Dr Sarah Cook, we find out about the experience she brings to her new leadership role and the direction she plans to take the IGD.
Dr Sarah Cook officially joined UNSW on 29 October as the inaugural Director of the Institute for Global Development (IGD) and Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences.
Dr Cook will be working with colleagues and partners to shape the strategic direction of the IGD, building on the University’s global strategy and its commitment to research excellence and social engagement.
UNSW’s IGD was established to serve as a catalyst through which UNSW research can contribute to global development including the realisation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, working in partnership with others to positively transform lives and advance a just society. To date, IGD initiatives are engaging with partner communities and institutions in Uganda, Myanmar, the South Pacific and Australia across a range of activities including academic leadership training, community health programmes and the development of green energy solutions.
Firstly, Dr Cook welcome to UNSW. You have a distinguished career in academia and international organisations including most recently as Director of UNICEF’s Office of Research-Innocenti in Florence, Italy. What attracted you to this new role with UNSW’s IGD?
Thank you for the welcome.
The IGD offers a rare opportunity to build something new and unique in the development field – a centre that can catalyse existing research and expertise across the range of UNSW faculties to address key development questions, and to ensure research is relevant and has impact through diverse forms of engagement and partnerships.
This idea resonated with my own journey as a researcher, with experience in academic institutions and most recently leading research centres within the United Nations system. I share the commitment to academic excellence and rigour, while also personally wanting to undertake and support research of relevance to contemporary development challenges, contributing to solving real world problems, and promoting greater equity, inclusion and social justice.
My positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the United Nations and the Ford Foundation have provided excellent platforms to do this. They crossed the boundaries of academia, policy and praxis, generating and using evidence that could inform programme implementation and service delivery, shape policies, or reframe global narratives around development.
So, I am very excited by the opportunity to work with colleagues to create a new and vibrant space for critical thinking about global development issues within UNSW, catalysing research from across disciplines and engaging with partners to create transformational change.
As the new Director, what are your plans for the IGD?
The first steps of course are to listen, learn how UNSW works, consult widely and develop an overall strategy for the Institute. The strategy needs to build on existing strengths and capacities across the University, identifying areas for synergy and where the IGD can add value, as well as seeking areas for innovation and the incubation of new ideas.
Outstanding research needs to be at the heart of the IGD and I hope to identify key areas and themes where we can add value to existing or planned research, bring together and profile work across disciplines to address priority development problems.
We will also seek ways to engage with the teaching programme and with students – and will be asking students and faculty how best to do this.
And we will support strong collaborations with other organisations that can add value in translating research into practical and policy change.
The long term ambition is to position UNSW as a leading centre in Australia for new ideas in global development thinking and practice.
What challenges do you foresee?
The challenge is to work out how to take advantage of the huge opportunities that exist here and translate them into results.
First I need to find my way around the University, meet relevant people and learn about the new institution and wider context, as I am new to Australia and to the development sector here.
For IGD, an early challenge will be to create a strong and coherent narrative about our work and directions, and to make our presence more visible within and beyond the university. There is already a vast amount going on in UNSW – in individual research projects as well as through the range of institutes and centres: we need to better understand what is going on in the development space and where IGD can add value.
Moving forward I will rely on inputs and engagement from many people and welcome ideas from colleagues across UNSW. I am confident many opportunities will open-up for creating synergies in work across the University as I talk to colleagues.
How does the IGD contribute to UNSW’s 2025 Strategy?
The IGD was established as an integral part of the vision for UNSW to be a university with global impact through research that addresses the grand – and global – challenges of today and the future.
Making visible the global impact of work already happening across the University, ensuring that the challenges addressed are most relevant to countries, communities and individuals that are disadvantaged or left behind in development processes, and ensuring we have the right partnerships and collaborations to link research and knowledge to policy and practice – all these are ways in which I believe the IGD should contribute to the overall strategy. The framing of UNSW’s global impact aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals – a universal, transdisciplinary and transformational agenda for action agreed by the global community - provides a possible organising frame for IGD in demonstrating and achieving global impact.
Throughout your career, you have met and worked with many people. Who has inspired you the most?
This is really hard – I can’t choose one person above all others. I have been privileged in studying with amazing professors; working with fabulous colleagues and staff in a range of organisations and I have been inspired by true leaders - of the Boards and organisations I have worked. What I have learnt to appreciate above all, and tried to learn from, are the values that drive the people I most admire – a commitment to justice, professionalism, curiosity, integrity and strong sense of equity.
You have worked all over the world in many interesting environments. What has been a highlight?
That’s much easier! My passion since childhood was always China: I first lived there from 1984 after completing my undergraduate degree in history, and spent almost 4 years in Hunan province, including in the relatively remote, ethnic minority region of western Hunan – definitely a highlight - training English teachers and watching the phenomenal story of China’s development unfold. My Master’s thesis examined education policies for ethnic minorities in China. I subsequently worked in Beijing, returned to do my PhD fieldwork in rural areas of Shandong province, and have continued to do research and engage in various areas of policy over many years across China, including 5 years based in Beijing with the Ford Foundation. Among the added attractions of coming to UNSW is the proximity to China, being in the region, and the opportunity to collaborate with China scholars here - particularly old friends and colleagues in the Centre for Chinese Social Policy.
Dr Cook, thank you so much for your contribution to this interview. We wish you all the very best in your new leadership role at UNSW.
For more information about IGD, visit the website.
About Dr Cook
Dr Sarah Cook joins UNSW after almost 10 years leading research institutes within the UN - as the Director of UNICEF’s Office of Research / Innocenti Research Centre, in Florence, Italy and from 2009-2015 as Director, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) in Geneva. In these roles, she has led research on transformative social and economic policy, shaping debates in the UN on equity, sustainability and social justice, and engaging at the intersection of research, policy and programming. Her own research has focused primarily on China, following its social and economic transformations over more than 3 decades. Sarah’s research interests revolve around the relationship between economic and social policy in development contexts, and have included research on social policy and protection, labour markets and migration, and gender. From 1996-2009 Sarah was a Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, and she also spent 5 years as a Programme Officer with the Ford Foundation in Beijing. She received her PhD in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.