1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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In Memoriam: Solon Barraclough, Former UNRISD Director, 1922-2002

31 Dec 2002

Solon Barraclough passed away on 19 December 2002. A former director of the Institute, Solon will always be fondly remembered by all his friends and colleagues at UNRISD for his dedication to his work, his achievements, his humanity, his love for humanity, and his sense of humour. A funeral service was held on 26 December, in Thonon, France. Our heartfelt condolences go to his family.

As tributes are coming in from around the world, UNRISD selected the following obituary which was published in The Guardian on 31 December 2002. The obituary is followed by eulogies and words of remembrance from friends and colleagues.


"The man behind the land reform programmes in 1960s Latin America whose work became essential to the anti-globalisation movement.

The radical American scholar Solon Barraclough, who has died in Geneva aged 80, was a world expert on peasants, land reform and rural development. A sometime professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, the most important part of his life was spent working in Latin America for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). There he was the spearhead and the intellectual author of the 1960s land reform programmes that were supported by the United States as a response to the Cuban revolution.

By preference a field-worker, Barraclough was never happier than when out in the countryside talking to peasants. He was an able and inspirational administrator, organising FAO research and training programmes in Chile and Mexico, and later for the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) in Geneva.

Born in Beverly, Massachusetts, he acquired a knowledge of practical farming on his parents' New Hampshire farm. Following wartime US army service, he was profoundly influenced by the experience of living in a destroyed and defeated Japan in 1945-46.

After studying economics at Harvard with Joseph Schumpeter, JK Galbraith and Wassily Leontief, he worked as a US Forest Service economist, and for several years was employed as a forester and farm manager. In 1952, given charge of a University of Tennessee-owned forestry plantation, he paid for an increase in the wages of the largely black workforce, by raising funds through mechanisation and improved marketing. He was soon in trouble with the local white elite, after ordaining equal pay for black and white workers, and giving both groups equal chances of promotion. After four years' struggle, he was obliged to leave, and set off for the wider world.

After a spell as a forestry adviser for the US government in Lebanon, he focused on Latin America's agricultural problems. Working for the FAO in Chile at the end of the 1950s, he was the right man in the right place in 1961 when President Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress, a programme for Latin America designed to undercut support for Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution.

High on the alliance's agenda was a commitment to state planning and to land reform - masterminded by Barraclough behind the scenes at the inaugural conference at Punte del Este in Uruguay - to which all Latin American governments gave their reluctant support. Barraclough, with agreement from the Chilean government and FAO and UN Development Programme funds, set up an institute in Santiago for research and training in agrarian reform (ICIRA), that was designed to flesh out the land reform proposals. ICIRA's task was to study the land tenure situation in each Latin American country, and then train the agrarian technicians who would oversee land reform.

In Barraclough's eyes, reform was not just a response to Cuba, but necessary if Latin America's immense peasantry was not to be forced into the shanty-towns surrounding the cities. In the conservative atmosphere of 1960s Latin America, where many members of the governing class came from the old landed elites, ICIRA's work was often perceived as "communistic", but Barraclough persevered for more than a decade.

His disciples, inspired by his charismatic integrity, spread the word around the continent, while he himself played an influential role in Chile, sustaining the land reform process that was begun by the Christian Democrat government of Eduardo Frei, and continued - with the existing legislation - by the more radical government of Salvador Allende in the early 1970s.

ICIRA's detailed studies of the land tenure situation in half a dozen other Latin American countries are now recognised as perhaps the most significant and valuable piece of socio-economic investigation in Latin America in the 20th century. Without Barraclough's visionary insistence on research as the key to subsequent action, in the teeth of opposition on the ground and within the FAO bureaucracy, the ICIRA studies would never have got off the ground.

In September 1973, during the military coup against Allende, Barraclough's house and institute were raided by the Chilean military, and he became persona non grata. ICIRA was closed down, the land reform was reversed, and the old landlords seized back the land from the peasant cooperatives that had been farming it during the previous decade. As Barraclough had prophesied, without the support of the land reform process the peasants would inevitably be driven into the cities. To add insult to injury, a small proportion are now bussed back annually to bring in the harvest on the new agri-business farms that export Chilean food and wine production globally.

After that coup, Barraclough revived ICIRA in Mexico, but as more of Latin America fell under right-wing military rule, land reform was a priority neither for the military governments nor for the US. Barraclough became head of UNRISD, specialising in "sustainable development".

With some of his colleagues from Latin America, he began research programmes concentrating on the adverse social impact of the "green revolution", and examining the causes of famine. His researches soon became essential for the anti-globalisation movement, concerned about the impact of neo-liberalism on the third world poor.

He retired from UNRISD in 1984, but remained a consultant for numerous governments and non governmental organisations, writing and travelling until illness confined him to his home.
Barraclough was a 1930s Rooseveltian Democrat, with a passionate, simple belief in the need to help the poor in their struggle against the rich and powerful. "You can never expect to win," he used to say, "but the greatest sin is to give up trying."

He was married for many years to Franny, with whom he adopted three children in Chile. In the 1970s, he married Isabel, with whom he had two sons. Both his wives, and his five children survive him.

Solon Barraclough, economist, born August 17, 1922; died December 19, 2002."

Richard Gott

Eulogies and Words of Remembrance:

From Ann Zammit

"Solon was timeless. Never young, never old, so we never made allowances for either.

Solon’s path and mine crossed in the mid-1960s when both were visiting professors in Escolatina, the postgraduate school at the University of Chile. Both faced the same problem: our subject ‘political economy’ was branded as mere politics. But we both knew that, if one does not pose useful or crucial questions such as who gets what, why and when, then statistical and econometric methods that were the much favoured subjects in economics served no matter how sophisticated these might be.

The mid-1960s presidential campaign in Chile was a crucial one, and the Christian Democrat candidate Frei received strong backing from the US, including a poster blitz suggesting that their children would be shot against the wall if Allende and the communists were to win. But it was also the time of Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, under which agrarian reform was to be promoted to avert communism and Castro-like revolution on the Latin American continent.

Solon, with his vision, energy, and commitment to change, seized the moment. With funds from FAO and the UNDP, and his hands-on experience as farm manager, forester, and economist with the Forestry service, and his already considerable academic work on rural issues, Solon established ICIRA, the Institute for Training in Research in Agrarian Reform, bringing together an excellent international team that undertook some of the most insightful and inspiring studies of land-holding and related issues in Latin America. They should be required background reading for anyone studying Latin America, whatever their field of interest. These studies are certainly among my most valued treasures.

The Frei Christian Democrat government’s rather tentative and limited approach to agrarian reform in Chile was grist to Solon’s mill, providing useful experience in the run up to the more serious land reform efforts under the subsequent Allende government.

Solon and his team continued their excellent work, even though the environment was generally hostile to their efforts and activities. Keen to hang onto political power and their land, the political and landed classes deemed ICIRA’s work to be subversive.

The 1960s and early 1970s were interesting times in Chile for Solon for other reasons: many of friends and colleagues had taken refuge there from hostile regimes elsewhere on the continent: some had been ejected from militaristic Brazil, some forced to flee Argentina during the ‘dirty war’ or the US-backed efforts to eliminate Che Guevara and progressive forces in Bolivia.

But Solon was unique. Who else combined such erudition, practical skills, plain speaking, egalitarianism, tireless effort in the office, in the ‘field’ as well as in his own chakra, still retain a sense of fun?

Fran, Solon’s first wife, was equally active in these vital decades. To outward appearances they fitted perfectly the filmic vision of the outback homestead couple, together with their brood – four adopted children, Annie, Esther Kenny and a fourth who died tragically when very young. But their political commitment and activities belied this image.

Solon only occasionally bowed to convention: for the very highest of occasions, such as at the Palacio de la Moneda, he would put on a suit; dark blue, wide white stripes, pointed collar --surely his GI demob suit.

It is a fitting coincidence that some of Solon’s collection of books are lodged in the Jose Maria Arguedas section of Chile’s national library. Arguedas, a Peruvian writer, is renowned for his depiction of rural and indigenous life. Fran won a literary prize some years ago for her translation of Arguedas’s novel El Rio Profundo, and has translated and published others of his works.

When Pinochet brought death and disaster to so many in Chile, including some of our dearest friends, Solon’s personal life took a new turn, as it did for many of us. Enter the scene, Isabel, and then Soloncito and Edgar, who settled with Solon in France. Solon continued as tenaciously as ever, as friends and colleagues in UNRISD and the South Centre are only too aware.

On a more sentimental note, I’d like to share some of the images and emotions that come to mind when thinking of Solon as friend and neighbour during the Chile years.

High above Santiago, the Campo Militar a stone’s throw,
no condescension to bourgeois living.
Make do and mend. No knick-knacks.
But endless conviviality.

We shared the same scrubby slopes, and irrigation canal:
sluices up to water Solon’ maize, beans, whatever else,
down for my pumpkins, vines and many weeds.

Up with the larks, weekly we’d climb to the top of the nearest peak.

Reforma agraria, camp fires, starkers into ice cold lakes to rid the daily dust.
And endless talk about the evils of the day.

Solon, you did right to leave just now."

Ann Zammit
Mury, 20 December 2002

From Robert Molteno

"As the publisher of Solon's major work, An End to Hunger, in association with UNRISD, and more personally as the editor who worked on him over the text, including in this case, a very detailed copyediting and stylistic work on it, I got to know him, and used to see him whenever I visited Geneva. He was also a close friend of my late great uncle, Peter Molteno, who worked on fisheries for the FAO in the 1960s in Peru and Chile. As a result of these connections, I came not only to admire Solon, but to feel very affectionately towards him as a human being. He was precisely the kind of socially engaged, serious intellectual whose work was always relevant to the real lives of ordinary people and the great issues confronting humanity that Zed over the years has always been so proud to have published.

So please accept my condolences, on behalf of all my colleagues here at Zed. And I would much appreciate your passing them on to his widow, Isabel, and family."

Robert Molteno
Editor, Zed Books

From Alejandro Teitelbaum

"Con profunda pena me enteré la muerte de Solon.

Me acuerdo cuando lo vi por primera vez en una oficina el UNRISD. Primero me pareció un viejo. Pero a medida que lo fui conociendo y charlando con él me dí cuenta que no sólo no era viejo sino muy joven, con ese entusiasmo juvenil que ponía en las cosas en las que estaba trabajando. Siempre del lado de los expoliados, siempre con absoluto rigor intelectual.

Quiero compartir con ustedes este momento de tristeza.

Un abrazo."

Alejandro Teitelbaum

From Anita Tombez

"Farewell Solon. C'est en 1991 que j'ai fait la connaissance de Solon. Je suis rapidement devenue sa secrétaire. Même pendant sa maladie il n'a pas cessé de poursuivre son travail comme si de rien n'était. Il m'a toujours fait penser à un vieil arbre : fort et solide. J'admirais ses connaissances, sa mémoire, et sa sagesse. Et aimais l'écouter parler de son vécu sur le terrain. Ses anciens collaborateurs et amis le sollicitaient souvent pour demander son avis et là je percevais l'admiration des autres. Il était un être hors du commun. C'est une personne que l'on n'oublie pas et c'est un privilège pour moi de l'avoir connu. Cette dernière année il nous a montré son grand courage.

Sache, Solon, qu'à l'UNRISD tu resteras un exemple pour nous tous.

A sa famille, j'adresse ma plus profonde sympathie. Il était fier de vous tous et je suis sûre qu'il continue à veiller sur vous."

Anita Tombez

From Enrique Oteiza

"Solon nos fue no sólo un gran amigo y compañero de trabajo, sino también alguien que efectuó una extraordinaria contribución en el campo de las ideas, la investigación y la teorización sobre la necesidad de profundas reformas agrarias en América Latina y la manera de llevarlas a cabo. La explotación, los sufrimientos y la riqueza cultural del campesinado constituían una realidad histórica y contemporánea que Solon llevaba en el alma. Supo conjugar como nadie saberes provenientes de la economía, la sociología y la antropología, en una perspectiva histórica. Manejaba también un profundo conocimiento de la realidad del mundo rural. Su aporte a la reforma agraria chilena, que comenzó trabajando junto a Jacques Chonchol durante el gobierno de Frei y continuó hasta el derrocamiento de Allende, constituyó una experiencia de gran impacto e importancia más allá de Chile. Su apertura posterior a la visión más abarcativa de seguridad alimenticia, en la que incluía la producción, la satisfacción de necesidades básicas, la participación y la igualdad fue asimismo otra contribución sobresaliente, que lo llevó a enfrentarse con los popes de las semillas milagrosas y la revolución puramente tecnológica en el marco capitalista. A estos intereses y preocupaciones fue agregando en forma creciente su compromiso con la problemática del medio ambiente.

No se muy bien por qué les transmito estos recuerdos a ustedes, que conocieron a Solon tan bien como yo. Creo que en parte es una forma modesta de rendirle un homenaje íntimo...

... Sabemos bien como Solon enriqueció los campos de estudio que fue incorporando al programa del UNRISD. Cuando llegué al instituto coincidí con su perspectiva, agregando solamente el estudio del impacto social de las políticas de ajuste (la introducción del modelo neoliberal), y el estudio de los problemas sociales de los refugiados y otras poblaciones desplazadas. Reincorporé a Solon de inmediato, ni bien me hice cargo de la dirección del UNRISD, de donde lo había hecho salir el gobierno de su país natal (un humilde y más que merecido homenaje que le debíamos los latinoamericanos). Él siguió produciendo durante diez años más, aportando al UNRISD y al campo de conocimiento de su especialidad, hasta el final."

Enrique Oteiza

From Peter Utting

Solon – the rebel with a cause

I'll always remember Solon the night before he passed on. He was in his wheelchair, obviously in some discomfort, but still managing an occasional joke and as combatant as ever. He was denouncing US policy in the Middle East and was happy with our news that the former Nicaraguan president had been arrested for corruption. And when we asked him where we should visit when on holidays in Rome, he didn't recommend the ancient ruins or the Sistine Chapel but told us we had to go to the Piazza del Popolo.

I knew Solon from the early 1980s - the last quarter of his life, which was the period of his long association with UNRISD. We had met in Nicaragua shortly after the Sandinista revolution. He was a frequent visitor to Nicaragua, supporting the land reform process and helping build up the Managua-based Center for Research and Studies of Agrarian Reform (CIERA). He brought me to UNRISD in 1986 and in the years that followed was not only a great friend but a great teacher. In the early 1990s, UNRISD’s director, Dharam Ghai, brought in a group of youngish researchers to head several research projects. For all of us Solon was an inspiration – in his writing, his politics and human relations. He would always be there to read our draft papers, and to encourage or chastise us as appropriate. At a time when most of us were simply talking about the need for multi-disciplinary research, Solon had the breadth of knowledge to actually practise it. His writings on development issues are imbued with analysis and insights from economics, statistics, politics, sociology, history and the natural sciences, backed up by his considerable practical experience of farming, forestry and development projects.

The other remarkable thing about Solon was that in the last 20 years of his life – the so-called retirement age - he never tired. In fact, intellectually, he became even more productive when he entered his 70s. This is why his passing is such a shock -- first we assumed Solon was ageless; second, we assumed he would just keep on going forever. The day before he passed on, he was still writing – this time about the failings of the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

My strongest memory of Solon is of Solon the rebel, the person who was never afraid to speak the truth, never afraid to criticize injustice and to propose radical solutions. In our line of business people generally mellow a bit as time goes by and become a bit more conservative or bureaucratic. Not Solon. His political views remained more or less constant. Although he had to work with powerful people and organizations, he never compromised his views. In fact he was periodically forced out of many countries and institutions where he worked for telling the truth or trying to correct unjust situations.

In 1954 he went to Tennessee to run a forest plantation. When he introduced an incentive scheme to boost productivity and wages, the White Citizens Council called him in and told he was no longer welcome in Tennessee.

In the late 1950s he went to Lebanon, employed by the United States government to work as an agricultural extension officer. When the conflict broke out he couldn't do his regular job and began teaching at the university. He got his students to conduct a survey of one region of the country where, according to the Lebanese government, the majority population was Christian. The survey results revealed that the majority was in fact Muslim. The controversial results were stolen and a few days later Solon received a message from the US government saying he shouldn't teach anymore.

In the early 1960s, then in Chile, Solon was asked by the US ambassador to the United Nations as to whether the US should approve a loan that the conservative Allesandri government had requested for land reform. Solon replied that that particular land reform programme stood about as much chance of success as an anti-discrimination law in the State of Mississippi. On hearing of this, some government officials tried to get the FAO to replace Solon. After receiving support from Raul Prebisch and others he managed to stay and played a crucial role in the Latin American agrarian reforms of the 1960s and early 1970s until, of course, General Pinochet seized power in 1973.

The following year Solon went to Mexico and with the support of the then President of Mexico, set up an agrarian reform support programme. In the course of his work in the field he came across cases of corruption and began exposing them. When a new administration took office in 1976, he was advised to stop worrying about corruption and was even threatened with a pistol. Although obliged to leave one ministry, he found support in another and was able to transfer his programme.

And even at UNRISD, where he was director from 1977 to 1984, he also got into trouble. The official version was that he spent more on research than the Institute could afford. Technically this may be correct but the context is what’s important. When Solon took over as director he was concerned that too much of the Institute’s budget was being allocated for staff salaries rather than research in the field. He consciously tried to correct this situation. Financially he thought he could do this as he had managed to secure a large funding pledge from the US Congress at the time of the Carter administration. Assuming the pledge would be honoured he initiated new programmes. But when the Reagan adminstration took office in 1981 UNRISD funding was rejected. Fortunately the research programmes that Solon supported continued and ended up producing some of the finest works on the Green Revolution, food security and popular participation. And fortunately for the next generation of researchers, Solon spent much of his “retirement” at the office and continued writing until the last day of his life.

Peter Utting