1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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A Tribute to Rodolfo Stavenhagen

9 Nov 2016


A Tribute to Rodolfo Stavenhagen
UNRISD mourns the loss of Rodolfo Stavenhagen, who died on 5 November 2016 in Cuernavaca, Mexico at the age of 84. Stavenhagen contributed to the work of the Institute for almost fifty years, beginning in the 1960s, when he formed part of the increasingly important group of progressive social scientists from various parts of the world who attempted to understand the dynamics of postwar development efforts within the United Nations system and outside it. By the late 1960s UNRISD provided a venue for dialogue within this circle, as did the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, among others. Stavenhagen, who had European as well as Latin American roots, did important work for all these institutions, orienting research toward improving the livelihood of disadvantaged people in both urban and rural areas. His disciplinary training was in anthropology (from the National School of Anthropology in Mexico City) and sociology (at the University of Paris); but one of his great strengths was his ability to draw thinkers from a wide range of professions into productive discussion on issues that were multidimensional and extremely complex.

Among these issues, during the 1960s and 1970s, problems of rural poverty and disenfranchisement figured prominently. Stavenhagen's interest in the empowerment of small farmers is reflected in a series of books on peasant organization and mobilization, land reform and agrarian change. This was congruent with work then under way at UNRISD, where the latter decade was marked by a series of important international research efforts on the socioeconomic implications of technological change in agriculture, rural cooperative movements, and then a major effort in the early 1980s to understand the composition and functioning of food systems in various parts of the world. As a member of the UNRISD Board, Stavenhagen gave generously of his advice for all these programmes and provided useful links with Latin American research counterparts.

With the passage of time, Stavenhagen focused increasingly on the promotion of human rights, ethnic tolerance and international peace. He was a valued advisor for the Institute's major study on War-torn Societies, and then accepted an invitation from UNRISD in 1990 to organize and direct a large international research programme on Ethnic Conflict and Development, which ultimately involved work on evolving situations in Guatemala, Lebanon, Burundi, Nigeria, Guyana and Fiji, Malaysia, Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, the Horn of Africa, and among the Kurds. The final publication, Ethnic Conflicts and the Nation State, published in 1996, has become a much-used textbook in university courses around the world, as has its Spanish translation in a Latin American context. 2005 saw the publication of Racism and Public Policy, a volume that emerged from Stavenhagen's collaboration with UNRISD for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

UNRISD was of course not the only international institution that benefitted from the insights and support of Rodolfo Stavenhagen. He collaborated with dozens of United Nations organizations and NGOs, often in a founding role. He was the first person to occupy the post of Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, established for him by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2001. He was for a time Assistant Director General for Education in UNESCO. And in Mexico, his interest in improving education, particularly in rural and indigenous communities, was reflected in his work during the 1990s as a Deputy Secretary in the national Ministry of Education and then as a founding father of the Mexican National Human Rights Commission.

These posts were held with the firm conviction that knowledge gained through social research must be utilized not only to explain existing problems but also to ameliorate them. Stavenhagen made innumerable proposals for concrete changes in legal and institutional structures at both national and international levels. And as a consummate listener and negotiator, he proved invaluable in the practical work of finding solutions for apparently intractable conflicts, such as that which erupted in 1994 in the state of Chiapas between Indian communities and the government of Mexico. He headed the independent commission that managed to establish an autonomous region for the secessionists, thus ensuring a return to relative calm.

For all of us, within UNRISD and outside it, who have had the privilege of working with Rodolfo, of learning from him and laughing with him and benefiting from his extraordinary generosity of spirit, the news of his death is an irreparable blow. We celebrate his memory.

Cynthia Hewitt de Alcántara is a former UNRISD Senior Researcher and Deputy Director.

Photo: UN Photo Library / Pierre-Michel Virot