Remembering W. David Hopper

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By Ernest Corea
IDN-InDepth NewsObituary

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) -South Asia lost a life-long friend when William David Hopper, 84, an agricultural economist who was formerly the World Bank's Senior Vice President for Policy, Planning, and Research, and before that, its Vice President for South Asia, passed away in Washington DC. A private funeral service with family and friends in attendance was held on December 4, 2011.

William David Hopper [1927-2011] was widely respected for his contributions to international development cooperation. He believed passionately that solutions to the recurring problems of poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation could be best resolved through the highly focused application of science and technology.

He insisted that developing countries had to be partners and not clients of industrialized nations. He rejected as impractical paternalism the notion that foreign “models” could be successfully forced on developing countries. His views were not always readily accepted by his peers.

Asian Farmers

Hopper, who was born in Ottawa, graduated from McGill University in Canada's Quebec Province and obtained his Ph.D in agricultural economics and cultural anthropology from Cornell University in New York.

For the field research that would support his doctoral dissertation, he lived in rural India where he observed the farm population at work, studied the economic and social organization of villages, and acquired a life-long admiration and affection for India’s farmers

He was particularly impressed by the innovative sense of farmers who sometimes have to work against great odds. A friend described him, and not in jest, as "a honorary South Asian."

He was once asked: "Do you really think that Asian farmers will be willing to give up the archaic practices they have followed for a thousand years?" Hopper thought awhile and commented: "I have never met a thousand-year-old farmer."

He was equally at home with the powerless as he was with the powerful. While serving as the World Bank's Vice President for South Asia, he happened to arrive in Sri Lanka at a time when farmers and their political leaders were engaged in a traditional ceremony seeking blessings for a good harvest. He happily stripped to his shorts, waded into a muddy rice field, and joined the farmers.

India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi confided in him her belief that if India could "find a way to ensure that women and girls are in full control of their bodies, we will not face a population problem." After his first meeting with Hopper, President J. R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka told an aide: "Dr. Hopper understands us."

Back to India

Hopper's initial post-university career path was in academia. He held posts of professor and visiting professor at the Ontario Agricultural College, Ohio State University, and the University of Minnesota.

The pull of hands-on field work in South Asia was always strong, however, and it wasn't long before he was back in India as an agricultural economist with the Ford Foundation in New Delhi and, subsequently, as the associate field director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s agricultural program.

He was a World Bank consultant on agricultural development in India, and deputy team leader of the Asian Development Bank's Asian Agricultural Survey.

While he was in India, he was named to head the newly formed Ottawa-based International Development Research Centre (IDRC). As the Centre's founding president, he had the opportunity to put his experience-based ideas into practice.

Says an IDRC colleague: “The key elements of IDRC’s approach to research for development were created under Hopper and, despite some vicissitudes, have now lasted for 40 years.”

As IDRC President, Hopper was a member of a small group of experts that planned and eventually helped to set up the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

He left the IDRC to take up duties as the World Bank’s Vice President for South Asia, at the invitation of Robert S. McNamara, and was subsequently appointed Senior Vice President for Policy, Planning and Research, a position he held until his retirement. As Senior Vice President, he was nominated by the World Bank President to serve as the CGIAR Chair. He was the first, and thus far, the only CGIAR Chair who also helped to create it.

Power House

Hopper was an intellectual power-house with a range of knowledge that impressed, sometimes astounded, both friends and critics. A World Bank official asked him with some perplexity: "How do you know so much?" Stopping only briefly, to smirk, Hopper replied: "I read."

His intellectual capacity and thirst for knowledge were matched by a warmth towards his fellow human beings, whatever their station in life, including a willingness to give children and young adults the attention they sought. He never turned aside an inquiry. He was a superb raconteur, a gifted writer, and a persuasive public speaker.

In retirement, he held senior positions with Haldor Topsoe, Inc., Ontario Hydro International, Inc., and Acres International, Inc. and served on the Board of the International Water Management Institute and the International Fertilizer Corporation. He has also worked as an independent consultant with an international reach.

Hopper was born a Canadian and died an American. In 1978 he moved to the US with his wife Ruth Zagorin. They lived in Washington DC where family and friends enjoyed their large-heartedness and hospitality. The latter almost always included reminiscences of his life in Asia, as well as a specialty coffee brewed by Hopper with great ceremony. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 6, 2011]

Ernest Corea's previous IDN articles:

Picture: W. David Hopper

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