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Q&A: Niall O’Connor on leading SEI’s Asia Centre

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Written by Rajesh Daniel

Tuesday, 22 March 2016 14:00

SEI 2016 News Niall QandA 350x175

As he takes the helm in Bangkok, the new Centre Director sees learning, dialogue and partnerships as crucial to long-term success.

This month, Niall O’Connor became director of SEI’s Asia Centre, succeeding Eric Kemp-Benedict, who has returned to being a researcher at SEI-US.

O’Connor comes to SEI from WWF, where he had served in leadership positions since 2008, and as regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa since 2011. Previously, he served as country director in Gambia and Senegal for Concern Universal, a UK-based international NGO.

Niall holds an M.Sc. in biodiversity conservation from Imperial College London (specialized in developing community-managed nature park conservation plans), and an M.Sc. in forestry from University College Dublin (specializing in agroforestry).

After his first week at work, O’Connor offered his perspective on the Asia Centre and its future.

Q: You have spent much of your career in Africa. What drew you to Asia now?
NO: My wife lived in Asia as a child and has long been encouraging me explore this continent she loves so much. I had been looking for the right position to bring me to Asia, as I wanted to ensure I could use my experience to support sustainable development in Asia. SEI gives me this opportunity, with a highly motivated team of Asian and international researchers, and the ability to work with universities across the region, link with government departments and representatives, and integrate with civil society groups and communities. 

Q: What issues have you focused on in your previous work? 
NO: Over the past 20 years, from qualifying as a forester, I have had the pleasure of many interesting careers in Africa and beyond. I have led research teams in West Africa in agroforestry/agricultural systems in the Sahel, and supported local and international development NGOs to implement sustainable rural development initiatives.

I have worked on a wide range of issues: deforestation, marine ecosystems, fisheries industries, climate change, extractive industries, agricultural development and financial markets and direct foreign investments that impact both positively and negatively on many developing countries. A key focus has been on building the capacity and resilience of people, communities and countries to ensure enhanced and sustained development.

Over time, I steered towards management in order to (hopefully) influence the way my organizations understood and practiced sustainable development initiatives. I undertook further studies to enhance my environmental understanding and to ensure integration of development and environment in all the work I did. Alongside this, I promoted the development of the private sector and business entrepreneurs, as a means of enhancing our development paradigm.

Q: What do you see as your key challenges here in Asia and at the SEI Asia Centre?
NO: Like any newcomer, I need to learn the culture, the work culture, the reality on the ground, the political systems we operate in and how we can best support them. I need to meet and understand our key partners in all sectors, be that government, private and civil society. This can give me the grounding I need to understand the context, and their challenges, which will be our challenges. Armed with this, we can make critical decisions for SEI Asia to ensure we are focusing on the right issues, in the right way. 

Within the centre, as the saying goes, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. SEI Asia is doing very well, so I shall learn from all our staff how they have made this Centre a success, what they aspire to, and how best I can support this new growing future. These (and the hot weather) are my main challenges.

Q: What is your vision for the Asia Centre’s future? 
NO: That’s a big question in my first few days at work!  I do foresee more growth, throughout the region, in our areas of work, and in our policy impact. There are many challenges on this path, but with the excellent team, internally (and throughout SEI) and our external partners, I am very confident we can achieve sustained growth and impact. Ask me again in six months and I’ll give you a better answer!

Q: One of SEI Asia’s most important programmes is SUMERNET, the Sustainable Mekong Regional Network. What can the centre as a whole learn from SUMERNET’s work?
NO: SUMERNET certainly seems to have a track record for excellent networking, capacity-building and policy influence. While I am new to SUMERNET, I do see the incredible value of being part of such an extensive network (including almost 70 organizations) with access to key decision-makers. Our partners lead not only research, but also implementation on the ground, and they understand the context and represent the people and communities of the region. This network will continue to be central to informing policy in the region on the issues that matter most to the people.

Q: Does the Asia Centre need to step up its efforts in policy engagement and communications?
NO: Science-based evidence is the foundation our work, but great science is not always easily accessible to the general public. If we aim to inform policy, SEI’s communications need to be tailored to our audience’s priorities and needs. We need to develop our key insights into simple, robust messages..

Q: SEI Asia recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, but in many ways, we are still learning and growing in Asia. Your thoughts?
NO: We are always learning and growing – we need to. We need to adapt to the changing futures about us. We need to understand the needs of the people in rural and urban areas, so that we are asking the right questions, supporting the right policies, influencing positively the right decision-makers, from local to national to international, so that we help bring support decision-making and induce change towards sustainable development around the world by providing integrative knowledge that bridges science and policy in the field of environment and development. We cannot do this if we do not grow and learn. So on with the study!

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