The Institute for Development Studies is a multi-disciplinary as well as a multi-purpose organisation. It was created in 1965 in response to a strongly felt need for organized, full-time research on urgent social and economic problems of development. Right from the beginning, the IDS, an integral part f the University of Nairobi, was treated as a faculty. The institute first comprised of two sections: the social sciences section and a development studies section. The social sciences section was later curved out to form the present-day Institute of African Studies, while the development studies section was left in the Institute. The main functions of the Institute were and still are research and related activities, teaching contribution in the relevant departments of the University of Nairobi, the training of East African social scientists, the provision of facilities for visiting scholars qualified and prepared to make a significant contribution to the research programme of the Institute, the diffusion of research findings to a wider audience, and a variety of community activities designed to enhance popular understanding of the development problems of the country.
Since inception, the bulk of the IDS resources and staff time has always been devoted to research. Thus the Institute has carried out research on various issues over the years with a view to offering development solutions whenever possible. The Institute has always been headed by a Director. The Directors that led the institute from 1965 to 1970 were: Prof. B. F. Massell, Prof. E. R. Rado, Prof. J. S. Coleman, and Prof. Daram P. Ghai, in that order. However, during that time, only Prof. J.S. Coleman, and Prof. Daram P. Ghai served as substantive directors. The other two served on acting capacity basis. In the 1960s, the IDS research, which was informed by the prevailing socio-economic forces of the time, mainly focused on issues surrounding agriculture and rural development, education, industry and urban development, population studies, as well as tourism.
This did not change very much in the 1970s. However, there were slight variations in emphasis, informed by the changes in development thinking that were taking place at the global level. This necessitated the changing of the research areas. For example, industrialization, employment, trade/commerce, health, nutrition, and population issues became research areas in themselves. At the same time, the Institute was very much involved in assisting the government with development planning and evaluation. The Directors that led the institute from 1970 to 1980 are: Prof. Daram P. Ghai, Dr. J. M. Gachuhi, Dr. Peter Hopcraft, and Prof W. M. Senga in that order. During this time, Dr. J. M. Gachuhi and Dr. Peter Hopcraft served on acting capacity basis. The 1970s are particularly fondly remembered at IDS because of the leading role the Institute played in producing the celebrated ILO publication on “Employment, Incomes, and Inequality” in 1972.
The 1980s also witnessed a slight variation in the research themes at IDS in that, though rural and agricultural development remained a core research theme, new areas, like the management of natural resources and issues to do with the environment, human resource development, and housing were incorporated into the research priorities of the Institute. This is a clear indication that the IDS kept pace with, and at times also set the pace for development thinking in the region. The Directors that led the institute from 1980 to 1990 are: Prof. W. M. Senga, Prof. C.O. Okidi, Prof. Shem. E. Migot-Adholla, Prof. Kabiru Kinyanjui, and Prof. Njuguna Ng'ethe in that order. During that time, both Prof. C.O. Okidi and Prof. Shem E. Migot-Adholla served on acting capacity basis.
In the 1990s, the Institute’s research focus somewhat changed to reflect what was happening at the global level. Thus, areas such as commerce & industry, management of natural resources, and human resource development gained recognition as research areas within the Institute. Two directors steered the Institute in the 1990s. These were Prof. Njuguna Ng’ethe and Prof. Patrick O. Alila. The year 1999 provides a major turning point in the history of the Institute. It is the year that the Institute’s curriculum for Master of Arts in Development Studies degree programme was passed by the University of Nairobi’s Senate.
Thus the Institute admitted its first group of postgraduate students in Development Studies in the 2000/2001 academic year. In the same token, the Institute registered its first PhD student in 2004. Three directors have led the Institute since the year 2000 to the present. These are Prof. Patrick O. Alila, Prof. Dorothy McCormick, and Prof. Mohamud A. Jama. With the onset of the postgraduate programme at the Institute, members of the academic staff have been able to not only carry out research, but also teach and share out their research-informed knowledge with students of development studies. Though the research themes have remained virtually similar to those of the 1990s, areas such as small and micro enterprises (SMEs), human development, value chains analysis, higher education policies, civil society and those of urban development have gained prominence.