Bridging the silos (1) – Activating the LEAD network

Alliance magazine

Why did John Ashton decide to take a break from his job as head of environmental affairs at the UK Foreign Office to join LEAD International? When he first came in contact with LEAD four years ago, he saw it as having huge potential to make sustainable development happen. As he explained to Alliance, he had long been frustrated by the lack of contact and cooperation between the different organizations working for sustainable development. He saw LEAD as having powerful untapped capacity to integrate different areas.

At the Foreign Office Ashton had become increasingly aware that the organizations involved in implementing different multilateral agreements arising out of the big UN conferences of the last decade or so[1] were working in sectoral and cultural silos. He saw LEAD Fellows as having the ability to design and implement solutions across boundaries.

LEAD so far

LEAD International was created by the US-based Rockefeller Foundation 12 years ago with the aim of building leadership capacity in the sustainable development arena. The idea was to recruit outstanding people in mid-career in all walks of life – government, business, civil society, academic institutions, media – and give them training while still in their jobs, 80 days over 18 months in all. The subject of the training: how to think about and integrate sustainable development into decision-making in whatever activity you’re involved in. These people would then become leaders for sustainable development in their own spheres, and spread their ideas and practices through access to wider networks. In Ashton’s view, what is needed is ‘systems thinking’. We are all part of an interconnected system, and every decision has repercussions in other spheres of life. So far, 1,400 people in 80 countries have been through the LEAD training, and are now part of the expanding LEAD network.

LEAD post Rockefeller

Twelve years on, the last cheque from Rockefeller has been banked, giving LEAD a solid reserve on which to build its future. So what is the future? LEAD is now looking for a wider range of social investors. But, Ashton feels, in order to appeal to potential investors, they must be able to offer them something sufficiently compelling. In the post-Rockefeller phase, training will be only part of the LEAD package, which will consist also of shaping a knowledge framework in order to influence the research agenda, action on the ground at community level, influencing policy at the intergovernmental level. LEAD is moving from being a training organization to being a training and impact organization, and it is doing it by activating its network.

In June 2003, therefore, LEAD International launched four programmes that ‘aim to mobilize and harness the collective talent, vision and energy of the LEAD network’[2]:

· Communicating sustainability

· Ecosystems and poverty

· Food security

· Engaging with business

With over 500 Fellows participating in these programmes, LEAD is developing major projects in all four areas. Ashton talks about forming a ‘talent bank of Fellows able to address issues as needed’.

What sort of issues are we talking about here? Ashton gives the example of the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment – a good instance of the ‘separate cultures’ problem. The ecosystem scientists involved wanted to carry out an audit of ecosystems and look at the linkages between ecosystems and human welfare. The report now emerging looks at how best to make sustainable development choices. But the danger is that a huge amount of research will be done and a handful of printed reports produced that will not be applied by the people who really need to read them – in  banks, finance ministries, planning offices and so on. The ecosystem scientists have little capacity to penetrate these audiences.

This is where LEAD comes in. Their offer: ‘By connecting your research expertise to our network, we can give it reach and so influence. We asked, can we set up a partnership to look at how to do this?’ Having now done this, the next step is to go back to the Assessment’s original donors and invite them to invest a little more in return for the greater return that LEAD’s reach can provide on their initial investment.

One last question: if input is voluntary, why do Fellows take part? Participating will often help their day job, and in the long run may create opportunities for involvement on a professional basis. Personal commitment to the idea of sustainable development is another factor.
As someone who is clearly himself deeply committed to the pursuit of sustainable development, John Ashton is one of three founders of E3G, described on its website as providing ‘an independent space where people committed to global sustainability can share insights and proposals for meeting the challenges of a globalizing world with natural limits’.

1 For example, Monterrey, development; Johannesburg, sustainable development; Rio, environment.

2 See the LEAD website at

John Ashton is Director for Strategic Partnerships at LEAD International, London. He can be contacted at The opinions expressed in this interview are his own and do not necessarily reflect official views or policies.

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